January 20, 2011

Court Could Press Charges Against Researching Juror

A US high school librarian may face criminal charges after it came to light that she had been conducting online research while she was a juror in a capital-murder trial.

The actions of the juror prompted the judge in the Luzerne County, Pennsylvania murder trial to declare a partial mistrial. The issue appears to be the most serious reported instance of online juror misconduct, according to Reuters.

The problem was discovered last Friday, when the jury forewoman in the Court of Common Pleas told the judge that Juror No. 11, Gretchen Black, had conducted Internet research about the injuries suffered by the victim, and that she had offered to share her insights on the research with other jurors. By that time, the jury had already found the defendant not guilty of first-degree murder, but was deadlocked on charges of involuntary manslaughter and third-degree murder.

Judge Tina Polachek Gartley found Black's actions to be grounds for dismissal from the panel, forcing a retrial of the case on the lesser charges.

Assistant District Attorney Michael Vough told Reuters that he was considering bringing criminal contempt charges against Black. He said Judge Gartley had explicitly warned jurors before court recesses not to conduct their own research, including on the Internet.

Vough said that Black had already shown she was an especially eager juror. Early on in the trial, she raised her hand and asked the judge if she could question a prosecution witness, Vough said. The judge denied her request.

The defendant in the case, Lamont Cherry, stood accused of the May 2009 death of his girlfriend's daughter, one-year-old Zalayia McCloe. The child died from a fractured skull and brain injuries as a result of severe shaking by Cherry, prosecutors alleged.

Black's online research looked at retinal detachment, another injury suffered by the young victim. Prosecutors will interview the other 11 jurors before deciding whether to file contempt charges, said Vough.

Mark Bufalino, a court-appointed attorney for Black in the contempt investigation, told Reuters that Black misunderstood the judge's instructions not to conduct outside research, believing she was referring only to the facts in the case, and not the related issues such as how a person could suffer retinal detachment.

"She just wanted to be the best juror possible," said Bufalino.

The issue of keeping jurors from using the Internet during trials has plagued courts around the country for some time. In the past 18 months, at least eight state courts and the federal court system have rewritten instructions used to bar jurors from tweeting, texting, blogging, emailing, and doing their own research online. But many jurors ignore those rules.

Data compiled by Reuters Legal found that more than 90 trials have led to mistrial requests due to Internet-related juror misconduct. More than half of those occurred in the last two years.

Criminal actions against jurors for misconduct are rare. But when judges do penalize them for Internet misconduct, they almost always opt for fines.

In February, a Superior Court judge in Georgia fined a juror $500 for Googling information about a rape case. In May, a circuit court judge in Michigan fined a juror $250 and ordered her to write a five-page essay about the constitutional right to a fair trial.

In July, a U.S. District Court judge in South Carolina decided against charging a juror with contempt after he looked up two word definitions on the Internet and brought printouts of his findings to the jury room. The judge found that the research was not sufficiently prejudicial to the case, which involved illegal cock-fighting.

Jury experts say the issue of how to punish jurors who use the Internet during trials is posing a serious dilemma for courts. On the one hand, penalizing jurors for violating prohibitions against Internet use could have a strong deterrent effect. But penalties could also increase resistance to serving on juries.

"It's a Catch-22 for judges," said Thaddeus Hoffmeister, an assistant professor at the University of Dayton School of Law, who blogs about juries. Judges could become more willing "to bring the hammer down" as more abuse arises.