A federal judge has lamented that federal budget cuts will prevent him from instituting all the measures sought by the prosecution to safeguard jurors he acknowledged would need protection during the trial of gang members charged with murder and other violent acts.
Prosecutors from the Eastern District U.S. Attorney's Office asked Judge Sterling Johnson Jr. (See Profile) to make the jurors anonymous and to partially-sequester them during the trial of four alleged members of the Nine-Trey Gangsters, which operated for 16 years in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.
Johnson granted anonymity, saying "the government has sufficiently met its burden in establishing that the jury in this case needs protection."
He noted that two of the defendants had a "demonstrable history of obstructing justice" in the present case and in other proceedings.
Moreover, he said there "is no question" that the seriousness of the charges, including one murder and four cases of attempted murder, warranted protection. Finally, he noted that the case was likely to attract media interest.
But he stopped short of granting partial sequestration, whereby jurors would be kept together at lunch and accompanied by U.S. Marshals in and out of the courthouse to avoid mingling with the public or trial spectators.
Johnson said the price tag for that step was "not insubstantial" and noted the recent one-defendant death penalty trials for Ronell Wilson and Vincent Basciano that used juror sequestration­, each cost the Judiciary between $3 million and $4 million.
Johnson's decision did not say what portion of those overall costs could be attributed to partial sequestration.
"In deciding the instant motion, the Court must also be mindful of today's economic climate," Johnson said in United States v. Spicer, 10-cr-657. "Because of the toxic atmosphere on Capitol Hill, Congress and the Administration have been unable or unwilling to produce a budget. As a result, on March 1, 2013, [budget] sequestration went into effect. Sequestration to some means mandatory budget cuts. Sequestration to the Judiciary means more. It means unrelenting, unforgiving pain. Procedures, such as partial sequestration of jurors, have fallen victim to the devastating mandatory cuts."
Congress this year slashed $350 million from the courts' budget. The Judiciary is pressing hard for an increase in the upcoming fiscal year, but there is concern further cuts might be in the offing when the new year begins on Oct. 1.
Johnson's ruling followed a New York County Lawyers' Association report released earlier this month warning of dire consequences from continued budget cuts. Courthouse security was one of the things at risk, said the report (NYLJ, Sept. 11).
In fact, Johnson referenced NYCLA's report in a footnote. He also said funds for courthouse security have been reduced 30 percent nationwide.
Though being a "coequal branch of the government," Johnson observed, the Judiciary gets only $7 billion for its operations.
"This represents less than 0.02 [percent] of the total federal budget. When the United States prosecuted the war in Iraq, we spent $720 million a day. The war in Iraq has cost the United States more in 10 days than we spend in an entire year to fund the third branch of government," he wrote.
Eastern District Chief Judge Carol Bagley Amon (See Profile) declined to comment on Johnson's ruling. She said decisions to refuse or grant a partial jury sequestration request were within a judge's discretion, noting such requests did not come up often.
Amon emphasized that "no judge is going to compromise the defense of a defendant." But she said in the wake of the current "budget crisis," they were often confronted with questions on whether to allow payment for potential defense expenses like interpreters, expert reports and paralegals.
Though judges had always scrutinized costs carefully, they now have to take an even closer look at whether costs are justified. The expenses, said Amon, "have to be carefully scrutinized because the money simply is not there."
Amon was one of 87 district judges, including the state's other chief judges, who signed an August letter to Vice President Joseph Biden Jr. urging a Judiciary budget increases (NYLJ, Aug. 20).
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment on Johnson's decision.
The prosecution had argued in court papers that anonymity and partial sequestration were needed to protect jurors from an "extraordinarily violent criminal enterprise" with members still at large. To maintain juror impartiality, prosecutors argued that jurors could be informed that their anonymity and U.S. Marshal escorts were measures to protect their privacy so they won't think the defendants threatened their safety.
But the defense argued that the measure would plant the idea in the jurors' minds that the defendants were dangerous.
One of the defendant's attorneys, Joyce London of Manhattan, wrote, partial sequestration "as with the anonymity, communicates to jurors that they are not safe and that the defendants present a danger to them. This suspicion would cast a shadow across the case from its outset, before any evidence has been presented to the jury."
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Matthew Amatruda and Nadia Shihata appeared for the prosecution.
In addition to London, Frank Handelman of Manhattan appeared for two of the defendants. The other two are represented by Michael Hughes of Bronxville and William Stampur of Hurwitz Stampur & Roth in Manhattan.
@|Andrew Keshner can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.