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Are Fair Jury Trials Realistic in the Digital Age?

Updated on: 2/21/2019

Jurors on the Internet

Jury decisions must be based solely on the testimony and evidence presented in the courtroom during the course of the trial, and must not be influenced by external factors.

While it may be tempting for a juror to research parties involved in the case they are serving on, impartiality is an absolutely critical component of a fair trial.

But with greater and greater frequency there are more mistrials and appeals of jury verdicts due to one or more jurors using the internet to research information on legal terms, case law, plaintiffs, defendants, attorneys, and news reports related to the cases they are serving on.

In addition, more and more jurors that are discussing trials and deliberations on social media, personal blogs, and other publicly-available media. Increasingly, more judges are putting their foot down and imposing penalties such as holding jurors in contempt of court, requiring them to pay fines, convicting them of a criminal offense, or even sending them to jail. 

According to the Center for Jury Studies, the problem is so widespread that it has sparked the coining of the term 'Google Mistrials'. This kind of juror misconduct is concerning for two reasons,

  1. Jurors may use the Internet to obtain information about the case that the judge has ruled as inadmissible or irrelevant;
  2. Jurors may violate the privacy of jury deliberations by communicating with outsiders who may influence the verdict.

What is the solution to this problem?  Is there anyway to stop it?  What should judges do?  What if all jurors were sequestered? 

Can Jurors Be Trusted to Play by the Rules?

In today's world, jurors are often explicitly instructed to avoid doing background research on anyone involved in a trial they are participating in. Judges are responsible for educating jurors about the importance of remaining impartial to the trial, as well as dismissing any jurors that may have violated these guidelines.

But the problem centers around the fact that this is an honor system; there's very little actual oversight involved in monitoring jurors' behavior, and all bets are off once they have been dismissed from the courtroom for the day.

Sure, lawyers on both sides of the case are likely to monitor the jurors' social media activity in order to ensure they are not openly discussing the case with their friends on Facebook or followers on Twitter. But just because a juror isn't publicly discussing the case on social media doesn't mean they aren't researching the plaintiff and/or the defendant.

The only way to truly ensure that a group of jurors remained truly impartial to a case would be to seclude them from the regular world throughout the duration of a trial, which we know isn't going to happen. So in the meantime, all parties with a vested interest in a particular case must keep their fingers crossed that all members of the jury abide by the rules. 

Below is a list of several links to various news articles that discuss this issue in-depth:

  • For Modern Jurors, Being On A Case Means Being Offline, NPR, June 24, 2013
  • Eight Months In Jail For Juror Who Used Web To Contact Defendant, NPR The Two-Way, June 16, 2011.
  • As jurors go online, U.S. trials go off track, Reuters, December 8, 2010
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