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Judge Leslie Ghiz criticized media, questionnaire release before she became Tensing trial judge

Comments came in Bill Cunningham interview in 2016
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Posted at 6:25 AM, Jun 01, 2017
and last updated 2017-06-01 09:35:35-04

CINCINNATI – Even before she became judge in the Ray Tensing murder retrial, Judge Leslie Ghiz publicly opposed releasing juror questionnaires and criticized the media in the process.

“All it does is spook the jurors and it’s just craziness,” Ghiz said. “You want a fair and impartial trial for the state and the defendant ... and you can’t get that when the media is blabbing out.

“There is no valid reason for it.”

Ghiz made those comments and more last November in an interview on WLW’s Bill Cunningham show during the original Tensing trial. Ghiz was just an interested spectator then while carrying her own trial load in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court.

Then Ghiz replaced Judge Megan Shanahan, who was pregnant and recused herself from Tensing's case. Progress in the Tensing retrial grounded to a halt this week due to a dispute between Ghiz and the media over the questionnaires and her strict limitations on media access to her courtroom. Jury selection, scheduled to begin Tuesday, has been delayed two days so far.

There could be a breakthrough at a 9:30 a.m. hearing Thursday – or Ghiz could announce modified restrictions since she revoked her original order after the media went to appeals court last week and won a ruling against her.

RELATED: Ghiz to argue case for restricting media access

The appeals court said Ghiz’s stand was unconstitutional and she could not impose her restrictions without first having a hearing to show why they are necessary.

So far, Ghiz has not responded to WCPO’s May 26 motion to release the unredacted questionnaires filled out by 180 prospective jurors - despite higher court rulings that juror questionnaires are public record.

In 2016, Ghiz gave Cunningham a number of reasons why she opposed releasing the questionnaires: She expressed concern for the safety of jurors and their personal information, she suggested the media was interfering in the judicial process for its own good, jeopardizing the fairness of the trial and risking a mistrial, and she mentioned a case in her court when a defendant tampered with the jury through information he got from the questionnaire.

WCPO does not publish juror names or images that show jurors' identities without the permission of those jurors. However, WCPO believes it is important for journalists to be able to contact jurors and talk to them about what happened during the trial and deliberations -- if jurors are willing to talk.

Here are some of Ghiz’s comments from the Cunningham interview, in the order she made them. (Redundancies and irrelevancies have been removed.)

LISTEN to the seven-minute interview here. (It begins at 101:31).

“The Supreme Court has said they’re technically public record, but the problem is ... people don’t want to be jurors. If you sit through voir dire, they give every excuse under the sun not to be on a jury. And then now you’re putting them in jeopardy. What they feel or perceive as their personal information or their personal safety is in jeopardy, meaning that the Enquirer or whoever else -- all the news outlets -- wanted these juror questionnaires and there is no valid reason for it.

“There’s no real reason anybody needs to see those questionnaires prior to this trial ending or any trial for that matter because all it does is spook the jurors and it’s just craziness.”

"You want an impartial jury ... and you want a fair and impartial trial for the state and for the defendant and you can’t get that when  the media is blabbing out, ‘We’ve got someone from Madeira. We’ve got somebody from’ wherever. Nobody wants that as a juror and none of the judges want it because nobody wants to call a mistrial.”

“I had a jury in January where ... the attorneys were the only ones in there with the defendant and we had a jury tampered with. The defendant was smart enough that he was able to get the information even though he couldn’t take the questionnaires out of the room and was able to try to tamper with the  jury ... it’s scary. And my jurors couldn’t know that was going on. This was happening during the trial.”

(Ghiz explained on another occasion that the defendant’s acquaintance contacted a juror on Facebook.)

“The judges are bending over backward to make sure this goes off without a hitch, the attorneys on both sides are bending over backward, the sheriff's office, the administration— I mean, everybody is working overtime to see that this trial goes off without a hitch - and then and The Enquirer and the TV outlets all come in and say they want to see the jury questionnaires, for no other reason than to pop out on TV so they can scoop somebody else. There’s no valid reason. You don’t need an analysis. You know the makeup of the jurors. You don’t need to know where they live, what they do for a living – you don’t need to know any of that stuff. And you can have all of that once the trial’s done but, my god, what it has done to these  jurors. It’s stressful.”

Cunningham asked Ghiz if she thought a juror may “get hurt or killed” because their name or private information was released, and Ghiz said she wouldn’t go that far.

“I don’t know that I would be that drastic. I don’t want bad karma. I don’t want to say something like that. But something bad very easily could happen. The most important thing is - of course, safety is important, but the more important thing is we have a fair trial, both sides are heard and the defendant  gets the best trial possible. But there are also victims involved and when you have to call a mistrial, you have to put that victim’s family through a trial again and again and again and it’s not fair. It’s awful.”

In conclusion, Cunningham said: “Your right to know does not supersede the right of a juror to exist.”

“Not at all, not at all,” Ghiz agreed.

Judge Shanahan did not release juror questionnaires from the first trial until 18 days after declaring a mistrial – and she released only those of the 12 jurors and four alternates. The released questionnaires were redacted -- names, ages and addresses were blacked out, along with employers and family, job and school history. The judge left the jurors' gender, race and political persuasion along with their answers.

RELATED: What juror questionnaires revealed in the first trial.

In court documents before the retrial, Ghiz said she wanted to prevent the “jury revolt” that happened in the first trial over juror questionnaires.

Jurors reacted negatively when Shanahan first ordered the documents released at the request of the Enquirer and WCPO. After she announced that in court, the jury left for a break and refused to return for two hours until she coaxed them back.

Seven to eight jurors told Shanahan's bailiff they "feared for their well-being" if their identities become known, according to Shanahan’s court entry. After breaking for the weekend, Shanahan countermanded her order, the questionnaires remained sealed and the trial continued for a full week until Shanahan declared a hung jury.

WCPO's complaint against Ghiz’s limitations on the media, filed May 22, alleges the bailiff’s comments were hearsay.

READ the entire complaint below.

An attorney for WCPO, Monica Dias of Frost Brown Todd, said the law and the public's right to know require judges to release all questionnaires unredacted. The Ohio Supreme Court has endorsed the media's right to see unredacted jurors' questionnaires as part of its First Amendment duty as a government watchdog, Dias said during the first trial.

"This is not something that the media or WCPO has invented. This is something that courts across the country have recognized as an important foundation to our free democracy," Dias said.

It's necessary to ensure that the public understands how jury trials are administered and that they are conducted fairly, Dias said.

"Having open court, which includes information about the jury, allows the public to assess for themselves," Dias said.

Dias said she disapproved of Shanahan's limited release of the questionnaires in the first trial.

"I don't think the standard set forth under Ohio Supreme Court case law has been met here. There has been no particularized findings of any danger to any specific juror. There have just been generalized comments about concerns, and that's not enough," Dias said.

Access to the courtroom is crucial because media act as the public's eyes and ears, WCPO news director Chip Mahaney said last week. Restrictions, he argued, limit the public's right to scrutinize what happens.

"Trials are part of our government. Our government operates in the open, and the trial of a man accused of a serious crime that has enormous community interest needs to be conducted in public," Mahaney said.

"I understand the judge certainly wants a fair trial," Mahaney added. "I understand the judge wants this trial to start and finish in an orderly fashion and wants to do what she can to put guardrails to get the trial completed in a legal fashion. But, at the same, you know, there are laws that govern trials, and we see the laws from a different point of view."

Tensing, a former University of Cincinnati police officer, is charged with murder and voluntary manslaughter for fatally shooting black motorist Samuel DuBose during a traffic stop July 19, 2015. Tensing has claimed his use of force was justified, saying DuBose’s car dragged him as DuBose tried to drive off from a traffic stop and left Tensing in fear for his life.

For complete trial coverage, visit wcpo.com/TensingTrial.