Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Tweet This

Twitter, Facebook Lead to Mistrials:

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.

Last week, a building products company asked an Arkansas court to overturn a $12.6 million judgment, claiming that 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 before the verdict that the judge declare a mistrial because a juror posted updates on the case on Twitter and Facebook. The juror had even told his readers that a “big announcement” was coming on Monday. But the judge decided to let the deliberations continue, and the jury found Mr. Fumo guilty. His lawyers plan to use the Internet postings as grounds for appeal.
I'm surprised at the amount of this going on in the courtroom.
There appears to be no official tally of cases disrupted by Internet research, but with the increasing adoption of Web technology in cellphones, the numbers are sure to grow. Some courts are beginning to restrict the use of cellphones by jurors within the courthouse, even confiscating them during the day, but a majority do not, Mr. Keene said. And computer use at home, of course, is not restricted unless a jury is sequestered.
And how much twittering and facebooking (forgive me these absurdist verbs) would be occuring, even if the jury was sequestered? Given the prevalence of wireless technology today, you would have to ensure the hotels were stripped of access, and jurors of their technological gadgets (including, heaven forbid, cellphones). It seems virtually impossible to stop.
A juror on a lunch or bathroom break can find out many details about a case. Wikipedia can help explain the technology underlying a patent claim or medical condition, Google Maps can show how long it might take to drive from Point A to Point B, and news sites can write about a criminal defendant, his lawyers or expert witnesses.

“It’s really impossible to control it,” said Douglas L. Keene, president of the American Society of Trial Consultants.

Judges have long amended their habitual warning about seeking outside information during trials to include Internet searches. But with the Internet now as close as a juror’s pocket, the risk has grown more immediate — and instinctual. Attorneys have begun to check the blogs and Web sites of prospective jurors.
On the other hand, what I find interesting about this development, beyond the strange solipsism of sending "tweets" about a case as it is in progress, is the amount of "research" the jurors are doing, on their own, to help understand the case. Information which may be excluded from their consideration for extra-legal purposes is now suddenly finding its way into juror deliberations.

In the Florida case that resulted in a mistrial, Mr. Raben spent nearly eight weeks fighting charges that his client had illegally sold prescription drugs through Internet pharmacies. The arguments were completed and the jury was deliberating when one juror contacted the judge to say another had admitted to her that he had done outside research on the case over the Internet.

The judge questioned the juror about his research, which included evidence that the judge had specifically excluded. Mr. Raben recalls thinking that if the juror had not broadly communicated his information with the rest of the jury, the trial could continue and the eight weeks would not be wasted. “We can just kick this juror off and go,” he said.

But then the judge found that eight other jurors had done the same thing — conducting Google searches on the lawyers and the defendant, looking up news articles about the case, checking definitions on Wikipedia and searching for evidence that had been specifically excluded by the judge. One juror, asked by the judge about the research, said, “Well, I was curious,” according to Mr. Raben.

“It’s important that they don’t know what’s excluded, and it’s important that they don’t know why it’s excluded,” Mr. Keene said. The court cannot even give a full explanation to jurors about research — say, to tell them what not to look for — so instructions are usually delivered as blanket admonitions, he said.
Tough development. Shorter trials, limited access to technology in court, and more thorough juror instructions, under penalty of law, would be the only way to stop the information flow which may prejudice a case.

To use a historical example, can you imagine the O.J. Simpson "trial of the century" being conducted today? The circus from 15 years ago would be a unstoppable tsunami of technological madness.

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