The homicide trial of ex-East Pittsburgh Police Officer Michael Rosfeld begins today in Allegheny County court. It is the culmination — emotional and otherwise — of a case that prompted large-scale protests and heightened scrutiny of suburban policing here and the racial fault line running through it.
Media coverage of the trial will be predictably robust and largely unavoidable — unless you’re one of 15 jurors, 12 primary and three alternates, chosen to hear the case. They will have no choice but to avoid it.
Presiding Judge Alexander Bicket has decided that the jurors weighing Rosfeld’s fate will be sequestered throughout the roughly two-week-long trial. Rosfeld is facing a single criminal homicide count stemming from the June shooting death of unarmed 17-year-old Antwon Rose II, who was shot while fleeing a traffic stop on foot.
The decision to sequester Rosfeld jurors is not unexpected, nor is it entirely unusual. But whether sequestration achieves the desired effect of ensuring an unsullied verdict remains the subject of some debate. (More on that later.)
First, the jurisprudence.
John Rago, a law professor at Duquesne University, said sequestration is a fairly obvious choice in a case like this and “probably a wise thing to do” given the attention the trial will command and the diverse opinion it will engender.
“This is going to be widely and deeply covered with a range of opinions all over the place and the judge has to protect the jury from those kinds of external influences,” Rago explained. (Demonstrations and large crowds are also possible outside of the courthouse. Rose’s mother has asked would-be demonstrators and protestors to hold off while the trial is underway.)
For jurors, the result will be a cocooned existence. They’ll be shuttled to and from the courthouse daily while staying at a Downtown hotel under guard. They’ll be kept away from news coverage of the case and prevented from discussing the proceedings with others, including family members.
Jurors in all trials are expected to do the same. But in particularly high-profile cases, that can prove impossible, Villanova law professor Michelle Madden Dempsey told CNN, at least without the added imposition of sequestration.
As Rago put it, sequestration is an attempt to keep bias from “creeping in” during a trial. To keep bias from being brought in from the start, Rosfeld’s case will be heard in Allegheny County court by a jury from Dauphin County, three hours to the east, where the court felt pre-trial publicity was less intense and less likely to have molded juror opinions.
Chief Deputy Kevin Kraus with the Allegheny County Sheriff’s Office confirmed that his department will be supervising and transporting the out-of-town jurors while they’re sequestered here, but he declined to offer further insights “because of the high level of security that’s involved.”
Rago said sequestered jurors are typically kept away from the internet, social media and newspapers — outside sources of influence that can shape how they view or interpret the proceedings they’re watching day in and day out.
“And they’re limited in terms of what they can watch on TV,” Rago added. “The sequestration will be complete — and I think in this case it’s appropriate.”
Prospective Rosfeld jurors were asked in jury selection if they considered sequestration an undue hardship, meaning they were aware of this dynamic and given a chance to voice their opinions in advance.
Rago said he thinks sequestration is reasonable for a trial of this length. He pointed to the sequestration of jurors in the double murder trial of OJ Simpson as an “unreasonable” example.
Those jurors were sequestered for eight-and-a-half months, or longer than any jury in history. Simpson juror Michael Knox later described the “oppressive, bizarre and infantilizing life of sequestration, in which no doors can be locked, jurors cannot drink a beer, and, even during conjugal visits, jurors worry about having their conversations monitored,” The New York Times wrote.
Juries have also been sequestered in the comparatively brief trials of Casey Anthony, George Zimmerman and Bill Cosby, the latter being a jury of Allegheny County residents.
A representative of presiding Judge Alexander Bicket’s office said juror sequestration in the Rosfeld case is no different from any other, with the order imposed to keep the jury from outside influence and from consuming information that has been barred from the trial.
Juries can also be sequestered during the deliberation phase of a trial, as they consider the guilt or innocence of a defendant. But it depends on the case, said Carol Eddins, a department manager with Allegheny County Court Administration. And given the high profile of the Rosfeld case, it was decided the jury would be sequestered throughout the trial process.
But not everyone agrees that sequestration works as intended.
Prosecutors opposing a defense request that jurors be sequestered in the trial of William Porter, one of the officers charged in the 2015 death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, cited a 1981 ruling in which an appellate court found jurors “are more likely to perform their duty fairly and correctly when they are not subjected to extended periods of arbitrary and pointless personal confinement,” the Baltimore Sun reported. A judge agreed and denied the defense request for jury sequestration in William Porter’s case.
Courts had begun to move away from jury sequestration, both due to the associated costs and the potential impact on jurors, The Cut reported in 2017. But, in particular, the internet’s influence on jurors and jury trials has likely only contributed to sequestration’s relevance.
There are other considerations, though, and questions about the impact on juries and, in turn, the verdicts they render.
Richard Klein, a law professor at Touro College, told The New York Times that sequestration ratchets up the tension in what is an already fraught situation and can result in aggression and greater pressure being put on holdouts when a majority of jurors has settled on a verdict. The opposite is also possible, wherein jurors spend so much time together that they start to think as a group and less as individual analysts. The emotional component also can’t be overstated.
Sequestered jurors have compared the experience to being imprisoned themselves. Gayle Barnes, a juror in the 2012 child-abuse trial of former assistant Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky, told WHYY it was particularly hard to not be able to process sometimes-disturbing testimony by talking with her spouse. (The Sandusky jury was sequestered only during deliberations and not during the evidence phase of that trial.)
Asked about this ahead of Bill Cosby’s 2017 trial and that jury’s sequestration, Barnes had this advice: “Be strong. You gotta be really, really strong.”
From a judicial standpoint, though, sequestration, for all its potential downsides, remains a way of safeguarding a process and ensuring an untainted outcome, Rago said. And for a trial judge, there is arguably no greater responsibility.
“I don’t think there’s any question that they’re trying to put a prophylactic over the whole process and I’m hard pressed to think a defendant, assuming there’s a conviction, or the government, assuming there’s an acquittal, would have much room to complain about the sequestration,” Rago added of the Rosfeld trial. “It does protect the integrity of the process. And justice is not a result, it’s a process.”