Courts are discovering a new trend among jurors that can have serious effects on trial results – the internet. More and more trials are facing difficulties when it is discovered that a juror violates their orders and researches an aspect of the case on the Internet. The Seattle Times reports a recent case where a rape trial had to be thrown out because it was found that one of the jurors researched the penalties of first-degree rape. To some this may not seem like a big deal, but jurors are not supposed to be aware of the penalties of crimes but rather what actions attribute the crimes. This way, jurors will convict based on what crime they think the defendant actually committed rather than based on what penalty they think the defendant deserves.
The case involved a 23 year old rape victim. After a five week trial, the jury was in deliberation for two days when it was discovered that one of the jury members had used his home internet to research the charges and the potential sentences. Jurors were torn between whether to convict the defendant of first or second degree rape. The judge felt that the fact that one member knew, and potentially shared his knowledge with the others, what the penalties were could taint the results. She ruled for a new trial.
This case is just one example in a series of internet related troubles that courts face. Jurors are told not to research cases on their own and many courts even take away cell phones while jurors are at the court house. Still, this does not stop people from using the internet at home and during their free time. In the past, there was always some concern that a jury member could get outside information by visiting a law library or reading newspapers. Now, however, it is not only easy but a way of life for people to get more information on subjects right away. In some cases, jurors might not even realize what they are doing since many people instinctively go to the internet to help them make informed decisions.
Courts now face the challenge of stopping jurors from using the internet to research facts about the case. The Seattle Times article explains:
Nationally, they've pulled up images of a crime scene (Google Earth), mapped the distance from crime scene to defendant's home (MapQuest), and researched terms from “reasonable doubt” to “retinal detachment.” They've looked up “lividity,” “great bodily injury,” “prudent,” “perverse” and “oppositional defiant disorder.”
Jurors educating themselves on the Internet are a problem for several reasons. First of all, jurors should be limited to only the information that is told them in court. For example, if a defendant's criminal history is not explained during trial, jurors should not have access to information about their past accusations or criminal record. Another reason the internet is a concern is because the information on it is not always accurate. Sources can be misleading, outdated or altogether false. When a person takes it upon themselves to do independent research, the facts that they are learning may not even be relevant to the case but will still affect their opinion of it. Lawyers will have no way of knowing what they are learning so they cannot dispute it.
Now courts in New Hampshire as well as all over the country are working out different ways to stop this process. One way that is being tested is by holding jurors personally responsible for their actions. One New Hampshire judge held a juror in contempt of court and fined them $1,200 after discovering that they performed their own research online. This is generally not believed to be the best course of action as it may alienate jurors and cause more citizens to fear jury duty. Instead, the article talks about warning the members of a jury of the consequences of their actions. Many jury rooms now are equipped with multiple signs reminding jurors to avoid Internet information. The article author also talks about the response of the family of the rape victim who after they discovered that a retrial had been scheduled. When you remind jurors that their actions can affect the victims of the crimes they've been hearing about, this may be a strong motivator to get them to abstain from breaking the rules. This trend will likely only get worse as more and more people embrace technology. Courts should address this matter now before it becomes even more widespread.