Why Facebook, Twitter and Jurors Don't Mix

Jury box
Jury box

Social networks have come to the courts, and the results haven't been pretty at times.

Juror Hadley Jons was recently fined $250 by a court in Michigan for posting on her Facebook page that she thought the defendant in the trial she was serving on was guilty -- before the defense even presented its case. She also was required to write a six-page essay on the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees defendants the right to a speedy and fair trial. This isn't an isolated case.

A juror in a negligent homicide case in New York, Karen Krell, sent a "friend" request to one of the witnesses in the trial on which he served. A court said she "breached her obligations as a juror" though her action was "insufficient to rise to the level of juror misconduct," according to the Daily Record, a legal newspaper. A group of jurors in Baltimore -- dubbed the Facebook Five -- continued to post messages about their service on the corruption trial of Mayor Shelia Dixon despite being told not to by a judge. Dixon, who was found guilty of a misdemeanor, is using the postings as a basis for appeal. In 2008, a juror in the U.K. was dismissed for polling her friends about whether to convict defendants in a child-abduction and -sex case.

Confiscating Smartphones

Jurors have also gotten in hot water for tweeting. An Arkansas building materials company is trying to get a $12 million civil verdict for posts a juror made about the case before, during and after the proceedings. Lawyers for Pennsylvania politician Vincent Fumo are appealing his corruption verdict because of a juror's Facebook and Twitter posts, including one declaring "Stay tuned for a big announcement on Monday everyone!"

Lawyers and courts are starting to become more tech-savvy. Some judges have taken the drastic step of confiscating smartphones, which can create problems for lawyers who need the devices for their livelihoods, according to Chris Davey, spokesman for the Supreme Court Of Ohio, who co-chairs the Conference of Court Public Information Officers. A recent survey from the group found that about 40% of responding judges reported they use social media profile sites, mostly Facebook, almost identical to the percentage of the adult U.S. population using these sites. About 9.8% of judges reported witnessing jurors using social media profile sites, microblogging sites, or smartphones, tablets or notebooks in the courtroom.

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Judges have worried about the sanctity of jury deliberations ever since the founding of the Republic. People are repeatedly warned against discussing the case with outsiders during deliberations. Those warnings are now updated to include social media. The Conference of Court Public Information Officer found more than half of judges provided juror instructions that mentioned new media use during the trial.

Federal judges are advised by the Judicial Conference of the U.S., the policymaking body of the federal courts, to issue the following jury instructions:

You may not communicate with anyone about the case on your cell phone, through e-mail, BlackBerry, iPhone, text messaging, or on Twitter, through any blog or website, through any Internet chat room, or by way of any other social networking websites, including Facebook, My Space, LinkedIn, and YouTube.

Easy to Get Caught

Some jurors can't help themselves and blab anyway. In the pre-Internet age, the only people who would know that a juror crossed the line would be friends and family.

"The difference i see now: When they're using social media, they're getting caught because it's out there to actually find and see," says Jack King, director of communications and public affairs at the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys. "Perhaps that's a silver lining."'

Originally published