Yesterday’s mail disgorged one of those notices that crop up every few years: a summons for criminal jury duty.
Until recently, I thought of jury duty as boring, but not that bad. (Boring, because I seldom get picked for jury duty — as soon as a lawyer hears that I am a Quaker member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, I usually go onto their “do not empanel” list. So my “duty” consists of sitting around until the judge says I can leave.) Now, though, it’s no longer just a borting day. I now think of it as a very risky task to be avoided if at all possible.
In January of this year, an American judge decided to file criminal charges for the very first time against a juror who admitted to conducting an online search while she was a juror.
It happened in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. High School librarian Gretchen Black was a juror in a particularly grisly murder case in which a little girl died as a result of injuries inflicted by her mother’s boyfriend. Ms. Black looked up a medical definition of one of the injuries suffered by the little girl, because she didn’t know what the term meant – and she offered to share her research with other jurors.
At her criminal contempt hearing, Black said that she misunderstood the judge’s instruction not to conduct outside research, believing that applied only to facts in the case, not simply an online dictonary search on what some words meant.
Ms. Black was the first juror to face criminal charges for online misconduct, though the charges were eventually dismissed. But several dozen jurors have faced civil fines for tweeting, texting, blogging, emailing, or researching proceedings online. A judge assigned a 5-page essay on the constitutional right to a fair trial after one juror posted “It’s going to be fun to tell the defendant he’s GUILTY” on her Facebook page while the trial was still going on.
It’s a serious issue for defendants, courts, and jurors. We’ve become so used to having our digital devices on hand all the time that many jurors find it hard to understand what is permissible, and what isn’t. I’d always taken my laptop with me to the courthouse when I arrived for jury duty, so I could work (or play games, or catch up on my reading) while I was waiting. Now that everyone has iPads and smartphones, it’s not as easy to spot the “connected” potential juror from the rest as it was the last time I had jury duty (2008).
Many jurisdictions are rewriting laws to ban any online action by jurors, and making jurors aware of potential civil and criminal penalties as part of the jury selection process. Some pundits are saying that these rules erode First Amendment rights to free speech — while others say they’re essential to ensure a fair trial. I tend to side with the second group.
On the other hand, I Google everything. And while I knew that there were times when judges ordered jurors not to read or talk about the case, I honestly didn’t know that you could face jail time for looking up a word you didn’t understand. (Posting a plan to vote a certain way on Facebook while the trial is going on? I’d never have even THOUGHT of that one.)
Next time I head downtown to the courthouse, my laptop will be staying at home. I may not enjoy jury duty, but I’m sure I’d like jail even less!