Last March, a federal judge declared a mistrial in a drug case—not for any missteps by the prosecution or defense attorneys—but because most of the jurors had gone on-line to research the case. The same month, a juror in a federal corruption trial was discovered sending updates on the case to his Twitter and Facebook accounts.
We live in a society where cell phones and PDAs are ubiquitous, where social media sites depend on user contributions, and where "to google" has become a verb meaning to obtain information on the web. It’s not surprising that jurors are tempted to conduct research on and communicate—sometimes from the jury box—about the cases they decide.
To help deter jurors from using various electronic technologies when hearing testimony and deliberating on a case, the Judicial Conference Committee on Court Administration and Case Management (CACM) developed and endorsed a set of suggested jury instructions that judges should consider reading to jurors before trial and at the close of the case. These instructions make it clear to jurors that they are prohibited from using electronic communication technologies in the courtroom, in deliberations, or outside the courthouse to communicate about or research cases on which they currently serve.
The instructions leave no doubt in a juror’s mind about what is forbidden: "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."
There is a good reason for precisely cataloguing what is forbidden.
"The Committee believes that more explicit mention in jury instructions of the various methods and modes of electronic communication and research would help jurors better understand and adhere to the scope of the prohibition against the use of these devices," said Judge Julie A. Robinson in a letter transmitting the suggested instructions to judges of the U.S. district courts.
For years jurors have been told that they must not discuss the case with anyone until they retire to deliberate; now they’re reminded that the prohibition extends to electronic communications as well, and continues until the judge accepts their verdict.
Why can’t jurors augment what they hear in court? Because, as the suggested instructions state: "You, as jurors, must decide this case based solely on the evidence presented here within the four walls of this courtroom… Please do not try to find out information from any source outside the confines of this courtroom."
To read the suggested instructions, visit www.uscourts.gov/newsroom/2010/DIR10-018.pdf.