Online and Off the Reservation

The Internet and its progeny have created a means (yet another) by which jurors inclined toward misconduct can exercise that propensity, and they are running with it.  Internet-related violations of judge’s instructions not to communicate regarding a case outside the deliberation room and not to consult outside sources of information have led to numerous examples of juror misconduct, driving judges to distraction, wreaking havoc in courtrooms, and resulting in many mistrials.

A Reuters Legal study compiled in 2010 found that in at least ninety cases in the previous eleven years, the verdicts were subjected to challenges because of alleged Internet-related juror misconduct, and not surprisingly, more than half of those occurred in between 2008 and 2010 as Internet use increased and services such as Twitter and Facebook emerged.  The article went on to cite several examples ranging from what might seem relatively minor, such as looking up the definition of “prudent,” which nevertheless resulted in an overturned verdict in a manslaughter case, to:

·         A juror contacting a defendant via MySpace (new trial granted)

·         A juror using the Internet to enhance his knowledge of sexual assault injuries (new trial granted)

·         A Seattle juror blogging about the trial lawyers, one of whom she thought was cute (juror dismissed)

That Seattle juror apparently saw nothing wrong with her actions, inasmuch as the judge had instructed jurors not to tweet, but made no mention of blogging, leading a public defender to comment, “We believe, probably stupidly, that jurors follow judges’ instructions. They don’t.”

According to the Sacramento Bee, in 2009, a San Francisco judge, in an abundance of caution, dismissed six hundred jurors because some admitted conducting online research on the case at issue.  Five jurors who “friended” one another on Facebook during the trial led to a challenge by Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon of her misdemeanor embezzlement conviction.  Another case in Florida was declared a mistrial after eight jurors admitted surfing the Web about their case.  In possibly the worst example, a judge in Fresno, California, ordered a new trial for a convicted killer after learning that the jury foreperson brought legal documents he obtained online into the deliberation room.

All the above cases and many more are causing courts to scramble to find ways to prevent such activity, from additional jury instructions to threats of fines, but the insidious nature of the activity makes it difficult to curtail.  Note that all the aforementioned examples include the fact that the jurors were either caught or admitted to the activity, a point amplified on by Greg Hurley of the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Virginia: “The thing that makes the electronic media issue a little different is that it is so accessible and anonymous,” he said.  “Jurors face exposure if they go to the library or drive by a crime scene, but there’s little risk in going online.”

Note:  The above was taken from Fixing the Engine of Justice:  Diagnosis and Repair of Our Jury System, which you can learn more about on this site.

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