Friday, March 27, 2009


Jurors searching

The New York Times recently had an item about problems with juries in the Internet age. There’ve always been issues with (non-sequestered) jurors talking with people outside the jury, and giving or receiving inappropriate information. But now, clearly, where pretty much any news and information are just a click or two away, and are available to many on their handheld devices, it’s become more difficult to handle.

Last week, a juror in a big federal drug trial in Florida admitted to the judge that he had been doing research on the case on the Internet, directly violating the judge’s instructions and centuries of legal rules. But when the judge questioned the rest of the jury, he got an even bigger shock.

Eight other jurors had been doing the same thing. The federal judge, William J. Zloch, had no choice but to declare a mistrial, a waste of eight weeks of work by federal prosecutors and defense lawyers.

“We were stunned,” said a defense lawyer, Peter Raben, who was told by the jury that he had been on the verge of winning the case. “It’s the first time modern technology struck us in that fashion, and it hit us right over the head.”

It might be called a Google mistrial. The use of BlackBerrys and iPhones by jurors gathering and sending out information about cases is wreaking havoc on trials around the country, upending deliberations and infuriating judges.

It’s certainly a problem when jurors read news and opinions about the trial or about the principals in the trial: it can unfairly prejudice the jury. The comments of a news analyst may sway a juror. Information about a defendant’s past — information that the judge has deemed irrelevant, and excluded from the trial — may sway a juror. Information about the political leanings of the plaintiff may sway a juror. Even finding out that one of the involved parties belongs to the “right” church — or the “wrong” one — may sway a juror.

Beyond that, the rule in America is that juries are supposed to use only the information presented at the trial in making their decision. If the trial is about, say, money laundering, even if a juror looks up information about money laundering, unrelated to the details of the trial, it’s considered a problem. Education about technical points of a trial... is not allowed. In fact, even obtaining such education from another juror is not allowed. If I know something myself, I will obviously use that knowledge as I decide. But if I try to explain what I know to other jurors, I’m stepping outside the boundary, and it might result in a mistrial.

I have mixed thoughts about that. On the one hand, those sorts of rules are part of what enable idiotic convictions, as in the Julie Amero case (and here). On the other hand, whatever I might know about a particular issue, I’m not an expert witness. Lots of people would “educate” their fellow jurors with questionable knowledge.

The Internet version of that could be an article in Wikipedia that might have just had a dubious update made to it, bogus information that would certainly cause confusion, or worse. And talking about “worse”, there are a lot of web sites out there that look authoritative, that try to present themselves as being authoritative, but aren’t. A juror could really be led astray by that.

So, while it bothers me — a lot — that we’re trying to keep juries relatively ignorant, I think it’s necessary.

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