A judge admonishes jurors during a trial - “Don’t watch any television news reports and don’t read any newspaper accounts.”
That was the old days. Welcome to today.
Last week a juror in a federal trial in Florida admitted to the judge he had been doing research on the Internet. The judge then polled the rest of the jurors, thinking that one juror could easily be dismissed in the drug trial and replaced with an alternate.
Instead, he got an even bigger shock.
Eight jurors had also done research on the Internet. A mistrial was declared and eight weeks of work by prosecutors and defense lawyers was for naught.
“It’s the first time modern technology struck us in that fashion, and it hit us right over the head,” said defense lawyer, Peter Raben to the New York Times.
This case is not an isolated one.
Twitter, Facebook, BlackBerrys, iPhones, Google, Wikipedia – all of today’s social network are merging with electronic means of communication and information sites to allow jurors to send out or take in information about the case they are hearing.
As the technological landscape has changed, the jury instructions have not.
Jurors are supposed to reach a verdict based on information presented in the courtroom and nothing else. Information may have been intentionally omitted as potentially prejudicial as part of pre-trial proceedings, developed over years of jurisprudence.
“That’s the beauty of the adversary system,” Professor Olin Guy Wellborn, of the University of Texas and co-author of a handbook on evidence law tells the New York Times. “You lose all that when the jurors go out on their own.”
Mistrials blamed on the Internet are popping up around the country.
A federal corruption trial of a former Pennsylvania state senator ended in a guilty verdict Monday. Defense lawyers demanded a mistrial when they found out a juror had posted updates on Twitter and Facebook, promising a “big announcement” on Monday. They will use the postings as grounds for appeal.
Last week an Arkansas court was asked to overturn a $12.6 million judgment after it was discovered a juror used Twitter to send updates on the trial.
There is no official tally of the number of cases increasingly disrupted by the Internet. Some judges confiscate cell phones at the beginning of trial, but unless a jury is sequestered, there is no way to keep them from going online at night.
Jurors ratting out other jurors seems to be the only way anyone knows the extent the Internet is impacting trials. #