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Judge Guards Jury’s Privacy, Safety

The judge in the Oklahoma City bombing trial refused Saturday to modify the extraordinary measures he has imposed to protect the anonymity of jurors in the case, suggesting he was concerned about their security - and his own.

U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch, after listening to arguments Saturday, rejected a media petition seeking removal of a partial wall he ordered installed to shield the jury box from the view of most journalists covering the terrorism trial of Timothy McVeigh.

“I don’t think there is a First Amendment right to look in jurors’ faces,” the judge said.

He also overruled media objections to steps he took to scramble the numbering system used for the 99 prospective jurors questioned in open court about their backgrounds and their views on capital punishment and other trial issues.

Matsch said he had assured potential jurors their names and addresses would not be revealed. But their answers to questions in open court probably yielded enough information to identify them “in these days of extensive databases,” he said. By changing the numbers during the final stages of jury selection, he made it difficult to ascertain the background and views, or even the gender, of the 12 jurors and six alternates chosen last week to hear evidence.

When people respond to a jury summons, Matsch said, they “do not consent to a strip search of their psyche, and the press does not have any warrant for it.”

Sources close to the case say the jury consists of seven men and five women, while the alternates are three men and three women. And while journalists have developed some information about the jurors - all are white, for instance, and appear to be mostly middle-class and well-educated - none of it has been officially confirmed.

It was in discussing jurors’ right to privacy that Matsch observed there is “some reason to be concerned about the safety of the jury.” He noted that the indictment of McVeigh and Terry Nichols, who will be tried later, said that “others unknown” also may have been involved in America’s worst terrorist attack, the April 19, 1995, bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people and injured 500 more. Those “others unknown” could try to disrupt the proceedings, he said.

Conversely, he noted that “a truck circling this building” bears a cartoon likeness of McVeigh with dynamite stuck in his mouth and ears.

“Some of them are very apprehensive,” Matsch said of the jurors.

He also disclosed that “some communications sent to me … were considerably different from messages of friendly persuasion.”

Officials responsible for security at the courthouse would not discuss whether the judge had received any threats.

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