The widespread use of the Internet has taken a lot of the guesswork out of jury selection.
Web users, especially those involved with social networking sites, are revealing much more of their personal information, often unknowingly.
The Web also makes it easier for professional investigators to uncover personal information from official records not available to casual users.
Professional investigators have always had access to more information than the casual computer user, but these searches are now paying off more than ever.
Jeffrey T. Frederick, director of the Jury Research Division at Charlottesville’s National Legal Research Group, said that people are revealing more and more personal information through their Web activities.
“It’s opening up a whole of area of information you can learn about jurors,” he said.
Investigator John R. Schatzman, of the Warshafsky Law Firm in Milwaukee, said he systematically researches about 20 of the most-used social media sites to gather background on potential jurors.
He said the most useful sites are ones, such as Twitter, which alert users to new postings.
“Every time someone Tweets you get the name, message and time the person posted,” he said. “I think if you know who is going to be on a jury panel, you would be quite remiss not to check social postings.”
While a quick Google search often reveals a startling amount of information about any computer user, some information attorneys can use to eliminate jurors is not always as readily available.
Alexandria, Va. investigator Ken Mitzkovitz explained that he has a number of databases available and knows the best ones to use for the specific information sought.
One might be good for criminal records, he said, but others would be preferred for lists of prior addresses or property records.
“There’s a lot out there,” Mitzkovitz said. “It’s just a matter of what are they looking for and what do they want to spend.”
Cost can be minimal
Schatzman noted that expensive mining isn’t always needed because “self-authored” sites like Facebook and Twitter provide an abundance of useful information about a prospective juror.
In talking with other investigators, Schatzman said one mentioned a post by a potential juror who was very anti-bicyclist.
“If I’m involved in defending a personal injury case that involved a bicyclist and a motorist, I darn well better know if there is a biased juror, and one way to check is through social posts,” Schatzman said.
Roanoke lawyer Paul R. Thomson III said he often goes a step further with in-house jury investigation, using a database like Accurint to get criminal records, lists of residences, employment and court records.
For a trained professional using the Internet, the rewards are boundless, said Frederick.
You can learn about political contributions, track the Web sites someone visits, view their comments on Facebook and even read their letters to the editor.
Gregory J. O’Meara, a Marquette Law School Professor and chair of the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Criminal Law Section, said that he advises students to be aware of what they post online.
“I tell them that lawyers are watching,” he said.
O’Meara said sophisticated jury searches are probably most beneficial in federal cases or instances where lawyers have more access to jury panel lists.
Milwaukee personal injury attorney Don C. Prachthauser noted that in Milwaukee, lawyers don’t know who is on the jury panel until they walk into the courtroom.
But in other counties in the state, lists can be obtained as much as a week in advance of a trial.
“There would be the opportunity to try and learn something about jury panelists on Facebook,” Prachthauser said. “I personally haven’t done that, but going forward it’s something I’ll probably try.”
Richmond, Va. lawyer Lewis T. Stoneburner said that in his jurisdiction, state court clerks’ offices often provide lists of potential jurors only on the Friday before a Monday trial. Moreover, the lists can include as many as 160 names.
“It makes it virtually impossible to do even a superficial search,” he said.
In Stoneburner’s view, it’s perfectly legitimate for both sides to get to know the people who will decide their case.
“I think it’s fair play to find out as much as possible about jurors without invading their privacy,” he said.