Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Jury Service in the Age of Twitter

If you aren't a regular reader of Doonesbury, you really should go check out the last couple of weeks of strips. Press legend Roland Hedley (who made it back alive from a quest to find Reagan's brain) has embraced the newest Net gadget, Twitter, and has promptly disappeared up his own bellybutton (while on camera for Fox News). It's not that far fetched, given that we now live in an era when people take hands-free cellphone calls in the middle of Kroger and Congressmen can't even sit through a Presidential address without sending something pithy out over the Web.

How bad has it gotten? The all-consuming access to the Web has started to infiltrate the jury room:

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, wasting eight weeks of work by federal prosecutors and defense lawyers.
And, yes, Twitter is getting involved, too:
Last week, a building products company asked an Arkansas court to overturn a $12.6 million judgment against it after a juror used Twitter to send updates during the civil trial.

And on Monday, defense lawyers in the federal corruption trial of a former Pennsylvania state senator, Vincent J. Fumo, demanded that the judge declare a mistrial after a juror posted updates on the case on Twitter and Facebook. The juror even told his readers that a “big announcement” was coming Monday. But the judge decided to let the trial continue, and the jury found Mr. Fumo guilty. His lawyers plan to use the Internet postings as grounds for appeal.
Jurors have always ignored judges warnings about outside sources of information. I remember a big murder conviction in Charleston when I was in school that had to be reversed because a juror brought a newspaper with coverage of the trial into the jury room during deliberations. The defendant got a new trial and was convicted again. Curiously, the outrage was directed at him and his lawyers, not the juror who ignored the judge's instructions.

But modern technology makes such situations much more likely than in the past. It's just so easy (and tempting, apparently) to jurors to misbehave. Although I'm a big fan of technology in general and the Net in particular, I'm starting to wonder if we are becoming too infatuated with being in constant contact with it at all times.

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