New Jury Instructions Help Create Fairer Trials

Whether you love jury duty or hate it, starting in January, judges must advise that you decisively cannot text or tweet about it.  California Governor Jerry Brown signed a law last week requiring judges to admonish jurors that they are prohibited from conducting research, disseminating information, and conversing via electronic and wireless communications.  2011 Cal. Legis. Serv. Ch. 181 (A.B. 141) (WEST).  The risks for bias or confusion of the issues are simply too high.

One 2010 investigation exposed a potential juror in Los Angeles Superior Court had tweeted, "He's guilty! I can tell!" while sitting in the jury pool.  The individual was selected for the jury, and the defendant was convicted.  In 2009, a San Francisco Superior Court judge dismissed 600 potential jurors because one admitted to researching the case on the internet.  In 2008, the foreman of a Ventura County jury posted details of a homicide trial, including a photo of the murder weapon, on his blog.  While the temptation to seek or post information can be great, there is great risk in doing so.

Just last week, the Janssen Law Firm wrapped up a civil trial against the county on behalf of its client, Elena Esquivel, who was attacked by a pitbull in 2008.   (View Times-Standard article.) Over the course of two weeks, jurors heard and saw evidence at trial including Facebook postings, descriptions of a parking lot in Mckinleyville, the vehicles used by local sheriffs and animal control officers, among other easily verifiable facts.

In the age of online mapping, social media, and picture text messages, jurors can more easily engage in prohibited behavior such as speaking about deliberations too soon, researching information on a case, using outside expertise in a particular field, publishing and accessing online information, or contacting parties, attorneys, or witnesses.  However, the various electronic mechanisms such as social networking sites or Wikipedia put at risk the carefully crafted cases that are exposed to juries after much thought by the attorneys and by the judge in the interests of justice.  As shown by Governor Brown’s recent legislation, jury instructions and courthouse policies on technology access are being forced to quickly evolve to control the instincts of modern jurors.

The jury instructions now required by California law would specifically target these areas.  Willful violation of the instructions will constitute a misdemeanor and therefore could be punishable with up to six months in jail.  One judge in England recently set an example by sentencing a juror to eight months in jail for chatting online with the defendant in her case, causing the trial to collapse, and costing the justice system millions.  (View article.)