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Life is an Open-Book Test ... Unless You are a Juror

I've heard it said that "Life is an open-book test," and I believe that this has become even more true as the Internet, Google, smartphones and other fundamental features of the digital age have become ubiquitous. In the year 2012, when you want to understand something, or define something, or test something, or check someone's background, you typically have instant access to the tools you'd need to do so. If you are truly interested, you will take the 10 seconds needed to get an answer or to learn how you can get an answer... unless you are serving on a jury.

If you are serving on a jury, however, the normal rules of life in the 21st century no longer apply, and you must get each and every scrap of information needed to do your job directly from the proceedings in the courtroom so that your ultimate verdict is determined solely by the evidence. Need to look up what a key word means? Too bad -- -put that cell phone down!!

The Palm Beach Post has an interesting article on the rise of "juror mischief," i.e., jurors who revert to the "open book" mentality that governs most of their lives and conduct a bit of their own, basic research to help with their deliberations. Examples include:

  • Juror Dennis DeMartin, who wrote in a book about how he drank three vodkas one night during the trial to help him determine whether the defendant was unfit to drive when he crashed his car and killed someone. A Palm Beach judge ruled last week that this drinking experiment did not affect the jury's decision.
  • Three Ohio jurors who took showers and timed how long it took their bodies to air-dry. A key issue in the case was whether a victim's body would have been wet if her husband had called 911 immediately. After learning of the jurors' experiment, the trial judge threw out the verdict.
  • A juror in a murder trial who Googled the defendant's name and reported to the other jurors that the defendant was a "bad guy" who had run away to Nicaragua after the murder. When another juror told the judge about this, the court was forced to start jury selection over from the beginning.
  • A juror who used her smartphone to look up the definition of the word "bolster," which she shared with other jurors. The court later ruled that the definition wasn't key to the case, and let the conviction in the case stand.
  • In a case in which the jury had to determine if a defendant acted "prudently" when he fatally shot a neighbor, the jury foreman used his phone to look up that word and shared the definition with other jurors. An appeals court ruled that the word was important and reversed the defendant's manslaughter conviction.

Thaddeus Hoffmeister, a law professor who also blogs about juries, told the Post that, for young people in particular, "digital activity" such as looking up words or finding information on Wikipedia is as normal as breathing. It is therefore more critical than ever, he says, for judges to fully explain why jurors may not conduct their own research and why they must instead rely solely upon the testimony and evidence presented in the case. "Get them to buy in," he says. "Tell them why it's not right."

In Palm Beach, courts now warn jurors against using social media or doing any of their own Internet research before or after they are selected, before they begin deliberations, and each time the jury takes a break. Last week, Palm Beach County also introduced a video intended to deliver that same message to all potential jurors.

Posted by Bruce Carton on May 14, 2012 at 04:21 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)

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