We are a nation hopelessly addicted to a constant flow of information, from the important to the trivial, continuously streamed to us through our little glowing devices.
Think back to the last time you were on an airplane and were told to shut down your laptop and put your cell phone on airplane mode. You, and everyone around you, probably waited until the absolute last second, or ignored the instructions altogether until the flight attendant called you on it (or perhaps you sneakily left your devices on from boarding through landing).
The same dynamic happens inside the courtroom. Jury panels are routinely instructed by judges to avoid the internet, resist the urge to Google or do any research of their own, or post about the case on social media.
Despite those instructions, it seems that many jurors can’t resist. Consequently, we’re seeing an uptick in the number of jury verdict reversals due to the conduct of a handful of jurors who just can’t help themselves. Rather than simply dismissing these folks as rogue, anti-authority humans, the bigger question is this: Why don’t they follow the instructions?
Jurors Aren’t Children
I believe those jurors who flout the instructions simply need more than a “because-I-said-so” rule. These are intelligent adults, not toddlers. Just as with passengers on an airplane, jurors are rarely told the very real reasons for the instructions to stay off the internet and social media apps.
If they were given that information, I suspect we’ll see a much higher compliance rate.
I recently witnessed a state court trial judge do something I wish every single judge in the country would do. When swearing in the jury, the judge actually explained why certain things were on her “must not do” list. I wanted to run up to the bench and give her a fist bump, but instead I settled for a subtle grin and an ever-so-slight head nod.
Empower Them with Information
Not only did she instruct the panel to avoid Googling or conducting research of any kind during the trial, but she also gave jurors multiple reasons why her admonishment should be considered important enough to be respected and followed. Here are a few of the “why’s” she shared.
- What you read on the internet or in the press isn’t always true. It’s not fair to the parties for you to be influenced by misinformation.
- If you read something about the case, it’s not fair to the attorneys or the parties they represent because they are not able to respond or to provide “the rest of the story.”
- If you conduct research of any kind, it could cause a mistrial, which would result in a total waste of your time, my time and the taxpayer’s money because the case would have to be tried all over again with a new jury. That’s not fair to any of us.
- If you were a party involved in a lawsuit, would you want the jury to rely on outside information? No, because that wouldn’t be fair to you.
Did you notice the theme within her reasons? She tied each one of them to the universal truth of fairness. Jurors across the country want to be fair, and they render verdicts based on their perception of fairness and conduct of the parties. The judge – consciously or not – empowered the jurors to make a good choice. The fair choice. The right choice.
Will every juror follow her instruction to stay off the internet and social media? I’d like to say yes, but I’m not that naive. There will always be rule-breakers.
But I passionately believe that jurors take their roles and responsibilities seriously and always do their best to be fair. And if they perceive doing their own research or posting to social media as fundamentally unfair and a betrayal of their duty, then I predict you’ll see more jurors following the court’s instructions.