A DISCUSSION OF LAW AND JOURNALISM

Judge throws the (Face)book at Juror

By Russell Smith

The Associated Press is reporting that a Michigan court ordered 20-year-old juror Hadley Jons to pay $250 and write a five-page essay on the Sixth Amendment for updating her Facebook friends on her thoughts about a trial before it was over.

The defense attorney’s 17-year-old son was checking out Ms. Jons’s Facebook page when he discovered this post: “actually excited for jury duty tomorrow. It’s gonna be fun to tell the defendant they’re GUILTY.  : P.”

Judge Diane Druzinski did not “like” the post. The Macomb Circuit Court’s rules of conduct for jurors makes it clear that jurors are “not to discuss the case with your family, friends, acquaintances” during the trial. Accordingly, Judge Druzinski removed Ms. Jons from the jury and leveled civil penalties for contempt of court..

Even though Ms. Jons did not get to revel in the “fun” of handing down a guilty verdict, the rest of the jurors did. The day after Ms. Jons’s removal, the jury found the defendant guilty of felony resisting arrest. Although the media didn’t discuss it, this raised the question in the minds of our reporters whether Ms. Jons may have discussed the verdict with other jurors before the end of trial. If she did, Judge Druzinski may owe the defendant a new trial.

It is misconduct when a juror discusses a case with other jurors before deliberations, discusses a case with non-participants at any time, or conducts outside research relevant to the case because it violates the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to an “impartial jury” and Fourteenth Amendment right of “due process.” Jurors are only entitled to hear information that is presented during trial and that conforms to strict rules of evidence. Information obtained outside the courtroom runs the risk of being unreliable or unduly prejudicial. Accordingly, hearing opinions from other jurors before first hearing all the evidence, hearing opinions from non-participants at anytime, or discovering information from internet searches presents the possibility that the jury’s impartiality was tainted by inappropriate evidence.

Under the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Remmer v. United States, a trial judge must inquire into whether juror misconduct prejudices a defendant, and if so, grant a mistrial. In recent cases where jurors have improperly used the internet, judges have generally declared a mistrial when a juror uses the internet to research issues germane to the case, and then shares that information with other jurors. On the other hand, non-relevant contact with third parties, especially when limited to a single juror, is generally not considered prejudicial.

During a trial in Massachusetts, a juror fired off an e-mail to 800 of his closest friends saying, “[j]ust say he’s guilty and lets [sic] get on with our lives!” The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court rejected the defendant’s claim that he was prejudiced by the juror misconduct. The court reasoned that the jurors were not exposed to any extraneous information that would have compromised the fairness of the trial. Similarly, Ms. Jons’s Facebook post is not a search for information related to the case, but a communication with her friends about the case.

Nonetheless, Ms. Jons’s post may still run afoul of the Constitution because it suggests that the jury collectively had come to its conclusion before all of the evidence had been presented. A plausible reading of Ms. Jons’s post is that all the jurors had already agreed to find the defendant guilty, and her Facebook post represented not what she personally was going to “tell” the defendant, but what the jury had already agreed to “tell” him. This seems like a particularly compelling reading because Ms. Jons was certainly aware that without the unanimous consent of the other jurors, she would not be able to “tell” the defendant he was guilty.  In United States v. Resko, a 1993 case, the Third Circuit concluded that “premature discussions [among jurors]…prejudice a defendant who may not have had the opportunity to present evidence, and benefit the prosecution by reducing the burden of proof.” In accordance with Resko, Michigan (and most other states) has long held that a judge should declare a mistrial if pre-deliberation discussion among jurors prejudice the defendant.

Immediately upon learning of Ms. Jons’s Facebook post, Judge Druzinski brought Ms. Jons into the courtroom for voir dire. According to the Macomb Daily, Ms. Jons initially denied any juror misconduct, but when Judge Druzinski read the Facebook post aloud, Ms. Jons was forced to cop to the charge. Then Judge Druzinski asked the critical question: whether Ms. Jons had spoken about the case with other the jurors. Unsurprisingly, Ms. Jons denied it. But, having lied just the moment before, can she be trusted? Furthermore, it does not appear that Judge Druzinski questioned the other jurors in order to ensure that there were no prejudicial pre-deliberation discussions.

Unfortunately for the defendant in this case, under Resko and other leading cases, the law provides broad powers to trial court judges to determine whether pre-deliberation discussions prejudice a defendant. On appeal, a defendant would have to prove that a judge “abused his discretion” in failing to grant a mistrial.

But the defendant would not be without precedent in proving that Judge Druzinski abused her discretion in failing to grant a mistrial. In Resko, the court held that it was an abuse of discretion for a judge, faced with an allegation of prejudicial pre-deliberation discussions, to not make a reasonably in-depth inquiry of the jurors. Similarly, Judge Druzinski appears to have conducted a deficient inquiry as she relied solely on Ms. Jons’s questionable statement and did not inquire further of the remaining jurors.

Judge Druzinski ordered Ms. Jons to write an essay on the Sixth Amendment because she did not take jury duty seriously. Arguably, Judge Druzinski did not take her responsibility to safeguard the defendant from a prejudicial jury seriously enough either.

 

via http://www.macombdaily.com/articles/2010/08/28/news/doc4c79c743c66e8112001724.txt

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