In today’s ever-evolving world of electronic communication, the consequences of constant information exchange are being seen in the courtroom. Mistrials, delays and the overturning of convictions are just some of the outcomes caused by jurors who cannot help themselves from “twittering” away on their cell phones, PDAs and computers; both inside and outside of the courtroom. The problem, which began several years ago but has recently exploded, has led the Judicial Conference of the United States, the organization which oversees administration of the Federal Court system, to issue “Twitter instructions” to all federal judges; federal judges are now required to read these instructions to the jury prior the start of trial and again prior to jury deliberation.
The goal of selecting a jury for trial is to select a panel of impartial jurors who will listen to the issues at hand as presented by all parties, understand and follow the judge’s instructions, and deliberate based upon those facts and instructions to achieve a fair verdict. With the evolution of electronic information sharing, more and more jurors have begun doing their own research to assist in deliberations. The problem is two-fold: one, jurors are supposed to be limited to the facts and instructions as presented to them at trial, not the wealth of information available on the internet which may or may not apply to the trial at hand; and two, jurors who choose to do their own research may rely upon information which is incorrect or flawed. Further, arguments have been made that juror use of the internet promoted corruption, tampering, or undue influence on other jurors.
Sheila Dixon, former Mayor of Baltimore, Maryland who resigned upon a conviction for embezzlement, recently challenged her conviction after it was determined that five of the jurors in her trial became Facebook “friends” during the course of trial. A Federal drug case recently resulted in a mistrial after eight jurors admitted to performing independent internet research on the issues at hand. Last year, in San Francisco, California, six hundred potential jurors were dismissed after admitting to performing their own research of the criminal matters before them.
The dangers of independent juror research are evident, simply by examining typical criminal proceedings. For example, oftentimes the jury is shielded from potential evidence, which has been successfully argued as tainted. The Prosecution may be barred from presenting certain arguments based on judicial ruling. By allowing a jury to perform their own research, beyond the scope of what has been presented, deliberations could easily be influenced by information which had previously been deemed inadmissible. Further, the fact that a juror feels he or she is an expert on a topic does not make that juror an expert. For years now, internet users have been self-diagnosing themselves with illnesses and impairments on WebMD; however clearly, the internet cannot take the place of a licensed professional.
In the past, jurors on high-profile cases have been barred from watching the news or communicating with outsiders, due to the potential of influencing the final verdict. A ban on internet access and wireless communication is merely the next step in the Court’s attempt to keep up with an ever changing