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In late August, a Judicial Conference Committee (JCC) updated the model set of jury instructions for federal judges, which explicitly states that the use of the Internet and social media to communicate aboutcases is strictly prohibited — specifically mentioning the use of Twitter, Facebook, Google+, MySpace, LinkedIn and YouTube. The model instructions came in response to a survey conducted by the Federal Judicial Center at the request of the Conference Committee on Court Administration and Case Management (CACM), which targeted the practices and opinions of federal trial judges. According to Judge Julie A. Robinson, chair of the CACM, many of the surveyed judges believed that further action needed to be taken and that frequent reminders about the prohibition were necessary to ensure compliance. Furthermore, the reasons for the social media ban, such as ensuring a fair trial, as well as the repercussions of its misuse, such as mistrials and wasted resources, should be highlighted.
Though common sense would seemingly dictate not posting trial information to sites like Facebook or Twitter when on jury duty, social media has been at the core of dozens of mistrials, appeals, and overturned verdicts in recent years. For instance, less than a year ago the Arkansas Supreme Court overturned a guilty-verdict, which carried a death sentence, because a juror sent out two tweets, one that suggested what the verdict was before it went public, even after being previously reprimanded by the judge for social media use. Such juror misbehavior does not always result in a mistrial though. For example, a 29-year-old juror from Florida found himself with a three-day jail sentence for contempt of court for sending a Facebook friend request to a defendant during a trial, then boasting on the social network site about being kicked off the jury by posting, “Score … I got dismissed!! apparently they frown upon sending a friend request to the defendant … haha.” Circuit Judge Nancy Donnellan was not pleased with his behavior and described his indifference to the integrity of the judicial process as the most “insidious” threat to the erosion of democracy. Aside from obvious problems accompanying jury-defendant interactions, the role of social media in shaping juror opinions is at an all time high. One extreme example of this occurred when a juror in a child abduction case in Lancashire, England posted on Facebook that she was unable to decide the guilt or innocence of the defendant, which prompted her to post details of the testimony and make her decision based on a poll of her Facebook friends.
To some legal scholars, these instances of misconduct simply confirm the long-held suspicion that juries have always found a way to discuss cases outside the courtroom and that juror impartiality is just a figment of the law’s imagination — people are not impartial, so neither are jurors. There is no more improper communication or erroneous reasoning occurring than there has always been; the courts can simply find misconduct faster and easier than ever before. It will be interesting to see the effects that this new model set of instructions has on the instances of juror misconduct. One important aspect of the rules that still may prove beneficial, though, is the obligation given to all jury members to report any incidents of social media misuse directly to the judge. By giving this responsibility to the jury as a whole, the problematic jurors will hopefully be recognized earlier on in the process and allow for juror dismissal rather than wasting judicial and taxpayer resources in a mistrial. Regardless of the effect of the new jury instructions, it is clear that social media has infiltrated the courtroom and disrupted the once insulated jury deliberation process.
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