Tweets from the jury box: jurors using Twitter jeopardize trials
In one case, a juror divulged a verdict on Twitter before it was announced. Now, some judges are trying to manage how members of the jury use Twitter.
Atlanta — During the trial of an Arkansas lumber supplier In February, one of the jurors tweeted his buddies that they should stay away from that product: "It's bad mojo," he thumbed, "and they'll probably cease to exist, now that their wallet is 12m lighter."
During a four-month-long political corruption trial in Philadelphia earlier this year, one juror was found to have been updating his Twitter account almost daily, at one point posting: "Stay in touch for a big announcement on Monday everyone."
And as reporters in Tuscaloosa, Ala., try out their new micro-blogging accounts this week to cover the high-profile trial of Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford, who faces federal corruption charges, defense attorney Michael Rasmussen says he's worried about jurors also taking to the Internet to research the case or send tweets to their friends.
Indeed, in an age of citizen journalism and Web publishing, a growing number of jurors are tapping away at their BlackBerries and iPhones from the jury box and the deliberation room – potentially putting trial outcomes into jeopardy.
"The possibilities for juror misadventures have multiplied with the advent of the Internet and small mobile devices," writes retired Howard County, Md., circuit judge Dennis Sweeney in a commentary earlier this year.
In earlier times, judges worried more about rogue jurors who might secretly peruse newspapers or traverse a crime scene. Now, many judges are trying to figure out if general warnings about jury integrity are enough, or if they need to get more specific.
Wanda Keyes Heard, a Baltimore City Circuit Court judge, now warns jurors: "At no time are you permitted to talk to the witnesses, lawyers or parties, go to the scene or use Google, Facebook or Twitter concerning the case."
But especially during major trials, with cameras and packed courtrooms, jurors can find themselves in the role of mini-celebrities, and the allure of offering an inside scoop can be hard to resist. Meanwhile, it's nearly impossible – and, according to some, even unfair – for judges to keep jurors entirely away from their cellphones and other mobile devices during a trial.
"With Twitter and instant messaging, being first, getting something out immediately is a thrill for them," Cynthia Cohen, president of the American Society of Trial Consultants, told the Huntsville, Ala., Times. "They get caught up in the excitement instead of following the rules and laws of the legal system. It's definitely a problem."
But three days into the trial of Mr. Langford, the Birmingham mayor, it's still only reporters using Twitter accounts to get out their close-up view of the trial.
Still, the impact of tweeting jurors is being explored in several legal moves. In the case of the Philadelphia corruption trial, the judge denied a mistrial motion based on the thumb-nimble juror, deeming that the juror's actions didn't affect the outcome of the trial. An appeal of the Arkansas lumber contractor's case is pending. The contractor says the tweeting juror undermined the integrity of the trial.
"The task of keeping the modern juror focused on the witnesses and exhibits admitted into evidence – and insulated from the onslaught of potentially prejudicial communications – will be an ongoing challenge for the judiciary and the bar," writes Mr. Sweeney.
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