March 18, 2009

Smartphones Present New Dilemmas In Juror Decisions

Across the country, jurors are falling prey to an epidemic. It appears that many are using their smartphones to access Google and social networking sites during court proceedings.

Their actions represent a conflict of interest in court, as US law clearly prohibits jurors from researching the case at hand. But research once meant reading news articles or discussing the trial with friends or family. Now technology is changing that definition.

"We were stunned," said Peter Raben, a defense lawyer who was working on a case when Federal Judge William J. Zloch declared a mistrial after eight weeks of work by prosecutors and defense attorneys.

Judge Zloch had discovered that nine jurors had been doing case research on the Web.

"It's the first time modern technology struck us in that fashion, and it hit us right over the head," Raben told the New York Times.

On Monday, lawyers for Democratic Senator Vincent Fumo of Philadelphia appealed after discovering that juror Eric Wuest had posted comments about the case on his Facebook page.

"Stay tuned for a big announcement on Monday," Wuest posted.

The issue is that jurors are not allowed to seek outside information about a case they are deciding. They are to reach a ruling based solely upon the arguments heard within the courtroom.

But the use of smartphones is allowing jurors to search the Web for more information or to share courtroom events with friends via social networking pages.

"It's really impossible to control it," Douglas L. Keene, president of the American Society of Trial Consultants, told the New York Times.

"There are people who feel they can't serve justice if they don't find the answers to certain questions."

Nevertheless, jurors' actions represent a direct violation of rules that have been in effect for hundreds of years, Olin Guy Wellborn III, a law professor at the University of Texas told the New York Times.

"That's the beauty of the adversary system. You lose all that when the jurors go out on their own."


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