Mar 18, 2009

Jurors' Web Research Causing Mistrials


A dramatic moment of the classic courtroom drama 12 Angry Men occurs when Juror No. 8 (played by Henry Fonda) undercuts the prosecution's claim that a knife used as a murder weapon had an extremely unusual design. Fonda stuns his fellow jurors by producing an identical knife that he bought from a nearby store during the trial.

Though the film's viewers are likely to applaud Juror No. 8 for trying to do justice, the judge would have declared a mistrial (and perhaps thrown No. 8 in jail for contempt of court) had the judge found out what he had done.  Jurors are supposed to base verdicts on the evidence produced in court.  Judges specifically warn jurors not to conduct their own investigations.  We have an adversary system of justice, and if jurors take it upon themselves to join the hunt for evidence, neither party to the trial has a chance to confront or respond to it.

At least Juror No. 8 had to do some legwork to find the knife.  In the Computer Age, lawyers and judges are suddenly realizing, jurors can disobey judges' instructions and conduct their own investigations -- even as they are sitting in the jury box listening to testimony.  A juror empaneled in an auto accident case who wants more information about an intersection can use a cell phone to check it out on Google Maps.  A juror wondering what evidence a judge excluded might find the information in a news story posted on the Internet.  A juror in a medical malpractice case who wants more information about a medical procedure might read up on it on Wikipedia.  And jurors who are in the habit of posting their thoughts daily on Facebook or Twitter might post their instant analysis of the issues before the case has been decided or even submitted to them for consideration.

For many people, the vast resources of the Internet are available to them 24/7 in their pockets or purses.  Judges can order jurors not to look for case-related information on the Internet, but the order is almost impossible to police.  And when jurors violate the order, the costs can be enormous.  In one recent case, federal judge WIlliam Zloch ordered a mistrial in a Florida case when it turned out that 9 of the 12 jurors had been conducting research related to the case over the Internet. Eight weeks of trial time, including the time of the judge, the attorneys, and the three law-abiding jurors was wasted.

If this trend continues, the misconduct of Juror No. 8 in 12 Angry Men may seem like the good old days.