We live in a society where information can be gathered on any topic within seconds.
The click of a mouse or tap of a finger– often a subconscious or reflexive act– provides a quick fix to our need for answers. We hop on Twitter for the most recent news stories. We use handheld phones to look up historical trivia or the latest football rankings. We tap an iPhone app to check stocks, the weather and even the nightly television lineup. We have become a society that is increasingly uncomfortable with the unknown and when we crave clarification or edification on an issue, we reach to the internet or social media. The instant gratification quells our uncertainty.
But what happens when that need for instant gratification results in juror misconduct?
Juror Research and Mistrials
In January, Reuters Legal reported that a Pennsylvania high-school librarian could face criminal charges for conducting online research during her jury service on a capital murder trial. The judge released the juror, declared a partial mistrial, and the defendant was retried on a lesser charge. The juror was assigned a court-appointed attorney to represent her during the contempt investigation. According to the attorney, the juror simply wanted to better understand the cause of the victim’s injuries. Apparently, she misunderstood the judge’s directions and “just wanted to be the best juror possible.”
In March, the San Antonio Express-News featured an article involving a similar incident in Texas. After five days of testimony and seven hours of deliberations, the foreman in a murder trial sent a note to the judge stating one of the jurors had “independently looked up the definitions of murder and manslaughter.” The judge granted a mistrial and the defense attorneys responded by filing a formal motion of contempt with the court. They asked the court to punish the juror with jail time or a $25,000 fine to help cover costs of a new trial. (The motion has been pending since March, but defense attorneys may withdraw the motion.)
Public Views on Jurors Who Google
The San Antonio mistrial was a hot topic in the local community and a number of readers posted comments online. The spirit and tone of the public comments regarding the Googling juror was quite interesting. The majority of readers dismissed the juror’s act as inconsequential. In fact, some actually seemed to applaud his use of outside resources to gain a better understanding of issues that were important to him. There’s no better way to punctuate the power of the feedback than to directly share excerpts:
“It was a definition, for goodness sake, NOT case law, precedent or actual ‘research.'”
“For looking up a legal term…??? Suppose someone ‘knew’ it already? ‘Legal advice’ from Wikipedia? Oh please. I would think the jurors should be prohibited from doing their own investigations, not looking up common terms…”
“Having been a juror in a capital murder trial, I remember how frustrating and ser[i]ous it is when the jurors can’t understand the charges and how they are worded. It doesn’t seem right that they can’t get definitions explained to them. I be[t] that is what happened here.”
The issue of Googling jurors and misconduct also became a hot topic within a circle of friends. Like the readers who commented above, my friends wanted to give these jurors a proverbial gold star for educating themselves when, in their eyes, the court or evidence failed to provide ample clarity. Despite my attempts to focus the group on the Judge’s instructions and the juror’s oath to follow those instructions, nobody— including the daughter of a criminal defense attorney– could wrap their arms around why independent research was forbidden and how something as simple as looking up a definition could cause any degree of injustice.
The Rule and the Reason
These two mistrials and the resulting feedback highlight the need for legal advocates and officers of the court to carefully evaluate the instructions jurors are provided at the onset of trial. Yes, judges typically instruct jurors not to Google, Tweet, blog, text, Facebook, or go online to research matters pertaining to the case.
But how many judges actually delve into the underlying reason and importance of this instruction? Not many.
If jurors had a better understanding of why conducting such research or participating in social media interferes with the right to a fair trial, and how it could cause a kink in our justice system, perhaps they would think twice before the drive to self-educate propels them to Wikipedia or Webster’s.
Our next post in the series will focus on Googling attorneys and the fine line between public information and juror privacy.