The Internet and Juries: The Role of the Factfinder?

In a recent Bergen County, New Jersey criminal case, involving a pastor accused of having sex with an underage member of his congregation, the trial judge declared a mistrial after a juror tainted deliberations by researching the case online and distributing printouts to fellow jurors.[1] This is just one of a long line cases throughout the nation where juror access to the internet has led to mistrials.[2] It is apparent, considering the desire to have an unbiased jury, that this is problem that needs resolving. Jury instructions have long since included admonitions against reading newspaper articles regarding the relevant case, or discussing the matter with others, all in the interest of allowing jurors to determine facts only from what is presented to them. The internet, however, has made this “closed-forum” approach increasingly difficult. In 2009, a study showed that 42% of the American population uses a smartphone.[3] This number has surely risen in the last two years. This statistic also highlights the increasing probability of jurors having internet access while actually in the jury room. Unfortunately, this is problem with no obvious solution. Many states have adopted jury instructions that explicitly prohibit internet use.[4] The U.S. Judicial Conference has provided the federal judiciary suggested jury instructions which include warnings against conducting any independent research using the Internet.[5] Yet, the issue persists. Holding jurors that violate these instructions in contempt of Court or administering sanctions are common options regarding punishment for this violation.[6]

However, notwithstanding the jurors who tweet or blog about the cases to which they are privy, there are a number of people who would argue that jurors should not be prohibited from researching issues.[7] If the purpose of the jury is to be the factfinder, then is it not appropriate for the jury to have and understand all relevant issues before deliberating? Traditionally, the jury is not to consider any information but what is presented to them. However, common sense tells that this goal is hardly met. Every juror comes into the courtroom with personal knowledge and opinions. Often this is irrelevant. However, it is not difficult to imagine a car accident case where a mechanic in the juror would provide insight that perhaps the parties did not proffer. Even with peremptory challenges, there is a chance that a juror will have more knowledge about a situation than desired.

What, then, is the problem with additional internet research–especially if the research relates to actual information and legal issues, instead of media coverage? It is certainly not the traditional way, but is it not in the interest of justice to allow juries to make informed findings? Another issue, perhaps, is that the judge has no way to control what the jury actually researches, unless we provide restricted internet access in jury rooms. Although allowing a jury the liberty to research may serve justice objectively, it poses a greater issue to our adversarial system. The judiciary is based on a process that entails two sides stating their stories, and a factfinder deciding who to believe. It is not unlike how teachers and parents handle two children who are fighting. In the interest of this system, it is best to allow the two sides to state their cases to the best of their abilities to a completely objective third party—the jury. This is why we need stronger penalties for those jurors who conduct internet research, even if it leads to less people wanting to serve on a jury.



[1] Kibret Markos, Mistrial Declared in Mahwah Pastor’s Sex-Assault Case, N. Jersey.com (July 12, 2011, 6:34 PM), http://www.northjersey.com/news/crime_courts/Mistrial_declared_in_pastors_sex-assault_case.html?page=all.

[2] See Brian Grow, Juror’s Online Research Prompts Mistrial and a Criminal Probe, Thomson Reuters News & Insight (Jan. 19, 2011), http://newsandinsight.thomsonreuters.com/Legal/news/2011/01_-_january/juror_s_online_research_prompts_mistrial_and_a_criminal_probe/; Stephen Stine, “Twitter in the Court:” Juror Social Media Use, Internet Research, and Mistrial, American Bar Association (Mar. 20, 2009, 4:04PM), http://www2.americanbar.org/sitetation/Lists/Posts/Post.aspx?ID=466.

[3] Brian Dolan, Study: 42 Percent of U.S. Uses a Smartphone, MobiHealthNews (Jan. 20, 2010), http://mobihealthnews.com/6178/study-42-percent-of-u-s-uses-a-smartphone/.

[4] See Stine, supra.

[5] The Google Mistrial: Addressing the Challenges of Internet-Era Jurors, DOAR Litigation Consulting (July 2011), http://www.doar.com/apps/uploads/enews_archive49_July2011.pdf.

[6] See Markos, supra.

[7] See Reader Comments, Juror’s Research Led to Murder Mistrial, Free Republic (January 17, 2011), http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/2658202/posts.

Author: Henal Patel

Henal Patel is a Managing Editor of the Rutgers Computer and Technology Law Journal and a third year student at Rutgers School of Law-Newark. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Rutgers University in 2009, where she majored in English and History. She was a member of the Rutgers Honors College, graduated summa cum laude, and with Honors in History. While at Rutgers, she was an Aresty Research Assistant to Professor Paul Clemens and as a writing tutor at the Livingston Learning Center. After graduating, she worked at the Office of Grants and Sponsored Programs at New Jersey City University. At Rutgers School of Law-Newark, she is a member of Rutgers Moot Court Board, a Kinoy- Stavis Public Interest Fellow, and an Eagleton Institute of Politics-Raimondo Legislative Fellow. She was a Summer Associate at McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter in Newark, a Judicial Intern at the Chambers of the Honorable Judge Joseph Conte, J.S.C. the Civil Division in the Bergen Vicinage, and an Intern with the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office. She is currently interning with the Office of Legislative Services.

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