Friday, June 17, 2011

Juror sentenced for using Facebook during trial

Joanne Fraill of Manchester, England (probably a Man U. fan), found out the hard way that Facebook and jury duty don't mix well.

On Thursday, Ms. Fraill was sentenced to eight months in prison after being found in contempt of court. It would seem that, while serving on the jury, Ms. Fraill "friended" -- and the use of that word as a verb should itself be a criminal act -- one Jamie Stewart, a defendant in a felony drug case, on Facebook. While the jury was deliberating, Ms. Fraill made contact with Ms. Stewart and discussed the case with her. She even provided Ms. Stewart with details of the jury's deliberations.
Sentencing Fraill, Lord Judge said in a written ruling: "Her conduct in visiting the internet repeatedly was directly contrary to her oath as a juror, and her contact with the acquitted defendant, as well as her repeated searches on the internet, constituted flagrant breaches of the orders made by the judge for the proper conduct of the trial."
Interestingly enough, the shenanigans occurred after the jury had informed the court that it was deadlocked. The court then gave the jury the option of deciding the case by a majority vote, rather than a unanimous vote.

Ms. Stewart, who was acquitted, was given a suspended sentence for her role in the online communications.

The widespread use of Facebook and Twitter (and other social media sites) is straining this artificial construct we call the trial. Unless we are going to sequester every jury in every case, someone is going to do a little "research" on the internet about the case. It may be pulling up maps of the scene of an accident. It may be looking at the online profiles of the attorneys involved. Someone might look for the defendant on Facebook or Twitter. Someone's going to go to Google to find out about the breath test machine or DNA testing or some other field of forensic (pseudo-)science.

The information they find might be helpful to the defense. It might be harmful to the defense. It won't, however, be subject to cross-examination. It won't be subject to relevancy or hearsay objections.

Most of us won't have to worry about it too much because most of our trials last no more than a day or two and none of the details of the case ever make it to the local paper.

But one thing is certain - technology has (once again) outpaced our legal constructions and conventions. I don't know what the answer is. Jurors may say they won't do any research outside the courtroom -- but jurors also state they won't allow their own biases to prevent them from being fair (even after they've admitted they will hold it against your client if she doesn't take the stand in her own defense).

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