October 13, 2011
Jeffrey T. Frederick, Ph.D.
Sure, in highly publicized cases, we all ask potential jurors whether they have expressed an opinion to others or, perhaps, written a letter to the editor regarding the case. And we tend to rely on the answers jurors give—although I have been involved in a death penalty trial where a potential juror, as editor of a local newspaper, had "forgotten" that he had written an editorial supporting capital punishment. Fortunately, the defense attorney had a copy of the editorial.
The Internet has vastly increased the opportunity for potential jurors to comment on cases before, during, and after trials. Jurors cannot only write letters to the editor, but they can voice their opinions on media websites and social networking sites (SNSs), e.g., Facebook and Twitter. And they do.
Ah, I Forgot!
A potential juror was recently held in contempt in an Oklahoma murder trial where Jerome Ersland, a pharmacist, had shot a robber five times after the robber lay wounded and motionless on the floor. While the potential juror had said that she had not expressed an opinion on the case, the defense discovered that she had made comments critical of the pharmacist on the local television's Facebook site six months before the trial. For example:
"First hell yeah he need to do sometime!!! The young fella was already died from the gun shot wound to the head, then he came back with a diffrent gun and shot him 5 more times. Come let's be 4real it didn't make no sense!"
The potential juror was removed from the jury pool. During a contempt hearing weeks later, the juror claimed she had forgotten she had made the six comments at issue and that she would have been fair to the pharmacist (who was convicted of first-degree murder). The judge refused to believe the juror, found her in contempt, and sentenced her to 100 hours of community service, which was to take place in the public defender's office.
I Am Ready for the Verdict!
OR, consider the juror who was ready to give her verdict halfway through the trial. A Michigan juror posted on Facebook the following—"actually, excited for jury duty tomorrow. It's gonna be fun to tell the defendant they're GUILTY. :P." Unfortunately, this post occurred during a break between the end of the prosecution's case and the start of the defense. The judge was alerted to the post, and the juror was dismissed for misconduct, fined $250, and sentenced to write a five-page essay on the Sixth Amendment.
We Did the Right Thing!
Finally, consider the juror who defended the jury's guilty verdict. A Virginia juror (under the username "Bedford") posted a defense of the jury's verdict on the website of the local paper, including the comment, "We were even given Jocelyn's journals," referring to the murdered victim's journals. Unfortunately, these journals had been excluded from evidence but had made it into the jury room, where jurors read aloud and passed around the journals. The judge sought and received the identity of the juror from the newspaper and subsequently declared a mistrial.