Friday, March 5, 2010

Juror contacts witness via Facebook

Forget about jurors googling the name of a defendant or an attorney or going online to research the accuracy of state breath test machines, how about a juror contacting a witness via Facebook with a friend request?

Lest you find it unlikely, that's what happened in a civil trial in the Bronx. After deliberating through a day in a criminal case revolving around the death of two firefighters, juror Karen Krell looked up a firefighter who had testified on Facebook and sent a request to be friends. The firefighter did not accept her request.

Supreme Court justice Margaret Clancy denied a defense motion to set aside the verdict based on Ms. Krell's conduct but did overturn the conviction based on insufficiency of the evidence.
Ms. Krell's conduct was unquestionably a serious breach of her obligations as a juror and a clear violation of the court's instructions. The fundamental right of a fair trial cannot be guaranteed if jurors fail to take their obligations seriously and disregard their oaths to follow the court's rules. Before a court can set aside a verdict based on a juror's violation of a rule, however, the misconduct must have prejudiced a substantial right of the defendants. -- People v. Rios, No. 1200/06 (Feb. 23, 2010).
In anticipation of such behavior, the Office of Court Administration amended its suggested jury admonitions to cover various forms of social media.
In May 2009, the Office of Court Administration's Committee on Criminal Jury Instructions amended itsrecommended "jury admonitions" to suggest that trial judges state that "you must not communicate with anyone about the case by any other means, including by telephone, text messages, email, internet chat or chat rooms, blogs, or social websites, such as Facebook, MySpace or Twitter."
The simple fact is that there is no way to prevent jurors from logging on to their computers or using their phones to "conduct research." To walk into a courtroom and assume that jurors are going to listen to the evidence and make their decision solely on the evidence presented in the courtroom is naive these days. You must assume if there's something bad out there that someone on that jury is going to find it.

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