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The One Simple Rule When Jurors Go Online

By: ANNE REED//March 16, 2009//

The One Simple Rule When Jurors Go Online

By: ANNE REED//March 16, 2009//

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It happened again. A juror accessed Twitter from court, and everybody's twitting out about it.

In a financial fraud case in Arkansas, a juror named Johnathan tweeted a little before and after — but not during — the trial. In between, his jury awarded $12.6 million to the plaintiffs. Now the corporate defendant's lawyer claims Johnathan's tweets as grounds for a new trial — and the Associated Press and How Appealing and dozens of other papers and blogs have picked up the story. Johnathan didn't sleep last night and took today off from work to try (unsuccessfully) to talk to the judge. "I'd be in hiding if I thought I did something wrong," he told the Northwest Arkansas Morning News. "I didn't."

He's right. There's nothing wrong with his "tweets". If we weren't so busy making the issue of jurors on the Internet more difficult than it needs to be, this story would never have gotten any play and Johnathan would be sleeping just fine.

One simple rule

Little band of people who read this blog, we can resolve this issue once and for all if we just tell every lawyer and judge we know that there is One Simple Rule for handling every case in which jurors access the Internet. One Simple Rule. Here it is:

If the juror had done the same thing off line, what would we do?

Seems too easy? Let's practice:

  • A juror asks her friends on Facebook what her verdict should be. If she'd just asked a bunch of friends on her lunch hour, we'd — dismiss her, right, if we were lucky enough to catch it before the verdict? So that's what should happen here (and did). This rule really works! Try it again:
  • A juror looks at the scene of the accident on Google Maps Street View. If he'd gone there himself, would it be okay? Of course not. So it's not okay on his iPhone.
  • A juror sitting in the waiting room, not yet picked for a trial, tweets a series of bitter complaints about how stupid jury duty is. If he'd gone to the pay phone and given the same rant to his girlfriend, would we do anything? Not if we wanted any jurors left. So we don't do anything about this guy.
  • A juror, after a high-profile trial is over, publishes a blog with detailed descriptions of the trial and what the jury said about the evidence. What if she'd written a book? She'd be happily collecting her royalties. So unless her blog itself describes something that was illegal about the deliberations, it's fine.

"It is kinda exciting"

It works every time. Try it on Johnathan's tweets. He tweeted twice before he reported at all:

  • "Well, I finally got called for jury duty. It is kinda exciting"
  • "trying to learn about Jury duty for tomorrow, but all searches lead me to Suggestions for getting out if it, instead of rocking it"

Any different from hundreds of conversations around office coffee machines on any given day? Not a bit. He tweeted twice from the waiting room:

  • "I guess Im early. Two Angry Men just wont do"
  • "Im the only one who brought toys: my laptop and a book"

What if he'd called his mom and told her this? No problem. He tweeted that he was on a jury:

  • "I got selected!"

I'm pretty sure that every juror in America's history has said that to somebody. And he tweeted three times after the verdict:

  • "And the verdict is … Penguin Eds can not make fries"
  • "So Jonathan, what did you do today? Oh nothing really, I just gave away TWELVE MILLION DOLLARS of somebody else's money"
  • "oh and nobody buy [stock in] Stoam [the defendant]. Its bad mojo and they'll probably cease to Exist, now that their wallet is 12m lighter. http://www.stoam.com"

I don't know what "Penguin Eds can not make fries" means, but after the verdict, he can say anything he wants to. It is, as they say, a free country.

I think Johnathan's tweets are great. But even if you don't like them as much as I do, you're wasting your energy if you think you can stop social networking jurors. Go to http://search.twitter.com and search "jury duty"; at any given moment during the business day you'll find people tweeting from courthouses all over America. The issues they're creating for lawyers and judges are not difficult. Just apply the One Simple Rule.

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