There’s a new phrase circulating in legal circles that illustrates just how wired we’ve become as a culture: Google Mistrial. What this means is that a significant number of jurors have been under the influence of extraneous information by either interacting on their social media channels or, in extreme cases, using Google or other search engines to research trial information they are not supposed to access while sitting on a jury.
In a recent opinion, the Massachusetts Appeals Court acknowledged the challenges presented by the prevalent use of social media in court by jurors during trials. In its decision, Commonwealth v. Werner, the court affirms a larceny conviction where it was discovered after the trial that three jurors had posted updates on Facebook about their jury service and had received responses to the postings. The defendant appealed on the grounds that the jurors were exposed to extraneous influences. The Appeals Court affirmed the trial judge’s denial of the defendant’s motion for new trial after determining that there was no evidence of extraneous influences on the jury. What is significant about the case is the general comment that the court makes about the growing problem of social media in the courtroom.
There have been an alarming number of reported cases across the country in which jury trials have been disrupted, if not terminated (mistrials), by jurors’ use of social media: posting online both during and after trials regarding the substance of the trial, jurors communicating with one another during trials, and jurors doing online research on the issues or parties involved in a case. This is a serious problem because it allows for matters outside of the evidence to influence a juror’s thinking which should be limited to the admitted evidence according to our rules of evidence.
In Werner, the Court took the opportunity to comment on what additional steps may be necessary to address jurors’ use of social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, during their juror service. The Court recognized that the old, general admonitions about not communicating about a case are not enough today, and that judge’s court needs to be given explicit instructions about not using the Internet and social media during a trial. As the Court put it, jurors must separate and insulate their jury service from their digital lives. If you are called to jury duty and happen to be selected for a case, you must be willing and able to take a break from your online life when the future of someone else’s case is at stake.