Prosecutors worried gangsters might attack a Georgia jury. Here’s how they protected them
A Macon federal gangster trial last month connected to an Athens murder used an anonymous jury for safety reasons, court documents show, a rarity in the Middle District of Georgia.
Attorneys filed a motion for the anonymous jury in April with concerns that stemmed from past actions of some of the gangsters on trial, including one defendant who sent letters instructing gang members to kill people who cooperated with law enforcement, court documents showed.
The gangsters also routinely disrupted court during pretrial events, case documents said, increasing the risk for jurors. One defendant’s mother accompanied him to court and interrupted proceedings.
The judge approved the use of an anonymous jury in May, bringing something to Georgia’s Middle District that had not happened in several years.
Melissa Hodges, a spokesperson for the U.S. District Attorney’s Office, said no one in the Georgia Middle District’s office could recall another instance of an anonymous jury in recent memory.
Former U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia Maxwell Wood tried what may have been the most recent in the area to use an anonymous jury, the high-profile trial of cult leader Malachi York for child molestation charges in 2004.
York led the Nuwaubian nation, a pseudo-religious group he founded, and attracted so much publicity before the trial that it had to be moved from Macon to Brunswick.
“It’s not often that it happens, but when it does, it’s to avoid sequestering the jury,” Wood said of anonymous juries. “(The York trial) is the only one I ever worked, or even heard about, I believe.”
KEEPING JURORS SEQUESTERED
Sequestering consists of keeping the jury more or less locked within a hotel, Wood said, moving them back and forth between their room and court for the entire trial. When trials can last weeks and even occasionally months, sequestering can be difficult.
“You feel pressured morally to go for almost seven days a week, because you’ve got these people in a hotel room away from their families,” Wood said. “So you try and avoid it when you can.”
Wood could not recall whether he and his fellow attorneys knew the names of the jury in the York trial nearly 20 years ago, but they were anonymous to the defendants and the courtroom was closed.
Measures were even more severe in the Gangster Disciples trial this year, as the jurors remained anonymous throughout the questioning process and did not reveal their addresses or occupations, according to court documents.
Jurors even met at an undisclosed location before court began where the U.S. Marshals Service would pick them up and drive them to the courthouse, court documents showed. Deputy U.S. marshals also escorted jurors to an undisclosed location for lunch each day.
The jurors did this for two weeks as the trial unfolded in August, hearing evidence of the murder and multiple drug deals. By the time the trial ended Aug. 17, the jury convicted three of the gang members on the RICO charges, while two defendants pleaded guilty.
The court scheduled sentencing for the gang members for early November.
This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with The Telegraph.