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Internet Technology Effecting Justice in the Jury Room?

I read an interesting article in the New York Times that I want to share with my readers. Apparently, sitting jurors have been using their iPhones and Blackberrys to research the parties and cases they are being ask to render verdict upon and sending the information they find to friends and family. For those of you who don’t know, jurors are supposed to render verdicts based solely on evidence heard in the confines of the courtroom and ruled admissible by the presiding judge. Jurors are not permitted to pursue answers or data outside of the courtroom. Evidence ruled inadmissible is supposed to be unavailable to them and they are not permitted to consider it. In today’s technological society, a juror can access the web on his/her mobile phone and seek the information that was excluded in court, in direct violation of a judicial order or the rules of evidence in state or federal court. Secret deliberations and opinions are being texted to friends, direct from the jury room!

The article reports that several juries and verdicts are suspect in state and federal court and in civil and criminal trials. It provides numerous examples of abuse. When a single juror in Florida federal drug trial admitted that had done case research online (violating a specific judicial instruction), eight other jurors confessed to the same misconduct. A mistrial was declared, after eight weeks of trial, costing taxpayers a fortune. In Arkansas, a $12.6 million verdict in a civil trial may be overturned because a juror was “Twittering” updates throughout the trial.

In the federal corruption trial of a former Pennsylvania state senator, the article reports, a juror posted trial updates on Twitter and Facebook; while the senator was found guilty, the centerpiece of the appeal will, most certainly, be the Twitter and Facebook activities conducted by this juror.

An automobile accident case can be effected by a juror’s examination of an intersection, or the distance between two points, by using Google Maps. In a medical malpractice case, a medical condition or procedure can be researched on WebMD or Wikipedia. Expert witnesses, patent or product histories, and attorneys involved in a case can be researched at various expert, legal and news sites.

The technological circumvention of long established court and evidence rules is a serious issue and creates the potential of a systematic denial of justice in civil and criminal trials throughout the United States. The article indicates that the number cases “disrupted” by Internet use is unknown but opines that mobile phone technology and easy access to the Web will certainly increase in the months and years to come. Court officers can ban mobile phones from the courtroom, but, unless jurors are sequestered, easy access is available at home.

What do I think? I believe that judges must be very specific and forceful in their instructions about these issues. They need to exercise firm control of their courtrooms. Jurors need to be carefully and fully instructed on the rules, what is excluded, what is admissible. Judges must mention that the use of the Internet is taboo and indicate examples of sites (Google, Twitter, Wikipedia, Facebook, etc.) where misconduct has occurred. They, and the attorneys involved, should advise that the rules of court and evidence have been around for centuries and that only evidence admitted in the courtroom can be considered in rendering a verdict. The article suggests, and I agree, that judges must call on fellow jurors to keep their brother or sister jurors “in line”. Most people want to do the right thing; some just need to be shown the way. I know that a promise of appropriate behavior is just that and actions speak louder than words, but educating jurors on what is misconduct in the courtroom and out will go a long way to resolving some of these problems.

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