Juror Misconduct: When the Judge Says Don’t Talk About the Case, that Includes Facebook & Twitter

Who knew 140 characters, a few status messages, and tags could play a big role in a court opinion hitting juror misconduct? 

It is not a huge surprise in a criminal case involving politics, money and fraud. 

A Little Background: The Criminal Case against the Defendants

Senate FraudMultiple Defendants were charged with 141 counts of the following:

(1) Fraud and conspiracy to defraud the Pennsylvania Senate;

(2) Fraud and conspiracy to defraud Citizens Alliance for Better Neighborhoods (“Citizens Alliance”);

(3) Conspiracy to defraud the United States Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”);

(4) Fraud related to the Independence Seaport Museum (“ISM”); and

(5) Obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice. United States v. Fumo, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 51581 (E.D. Pa. June 17, 2009)

To keep things interesting, one Defendant was a Pennsylvania State Senator.

The “Honorable” Senator was found guilty of 137 of the 139 charges against him.

Don’t Tweet the Trial

SilencedThe Defendants claimed they were entitled to a new trial because one juror had Facebook status messages and Twitter “Tweets” during the trial.  Fumo, 184-185. 

Here is the short version of what happened:

One of the jurors worked in the HR department of a law firm.  Fumo,192. He also was a user of Facebook, Twitter and had a personal blog. 

Like many Web 2.0 savvy users, he would post status messages and “Tweets” about his day. These included messages about the trial, provided you knew what the juror was talking about, since he did not disclose any facts. 

Jury deliberations were under full steam…and a TV story ran on the trial on March 15, 2009.  Fumo,183-184.

The Defendants learned from the news report that one juror made online postings about the trial.  The Juror also saw the headline for the report and quickly deleted his Facebook and Twitter postings out of fear.  Fumo,183-184. 

The Defendants in turn immediately filed a motion alerting the Court to disqualify the juror.  Fumo,184. 

Just What Did the Juror Say?

Twitter Postings

The juror’s one Twitter posting was simply: “This is it … no looking back now!” Fumo, 193-194. 

Facebook Postings

gossip girlBelow is the Court’s summary of the Facebook Status Messages:

Sept. 18, 2008 (apparently upon continuance of trial judge due to judge’s illness): “… is glad he got a 5 week reprieve, but could use the money …”

Jan. 11, 2009 (apparently referring to the end of the government’s case): “… is wondering if this could be the week to end Part 1?”

Jan. 21, 2009: “…wonders if today will really be the end of Part 1???”

Mar. 4, 2009 (conclusion of closing arguments): “…can’t believe tomorrow may actually be the end!!!!”

Mar. 8, 2009 (Sunday evening before second day of deliberations): “…is not sure about tomorrow …”

Mar. 9, 2009 (end of second day of deliberations): “…says today was much better than expected and tomorrow looks promising too!”

Mar. 13, 2009 (Friday after completion of week of deliberations): “Stay tuned for the big announcement on Monday everyone”

 Fumo, 194-196.

No RT’s from the Defendants

Defense Counsel wanted the juror “removed” from the trial, to borrow Twitter language.  They claimed the juror’s “behavior and his ‘utterly incredible testimony’ undermined his impartiality as juror.” Fumo,186-187.

The Court Tagging the Juror’s Comments

The Court held an in camera review one day after the news report.  Fumo,185. 

The Court was extremely supportive of the juror’s integrity and stated the following:

I just – - honestly, want to make sure my thoughts are on the record about this guy. My take on him is entirely different. My take on him is this is one conscientious guy trying very much to comply with all the rules and regulations that I’ve established more so then I would ever imagine that a juror would do. And I think that, you know, I’ve heard him and I don’t have any trouble with keeping him on the jury. Fumo, 185-186

The Court & Web 2.0

To the Court’s credit, the Judge included the “About” pages for both Facebook and Twitter.  Footnote 27 nicely summarizes Facebook’s Mission Statement “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.”  Fumo, 184, fn 27. Additionally, the Court summarized Twitter as “a real-time short messaging service that works over multiple networks and devices.”  Fumo, 185, fn 27.

The Court’s RT on “This is it … no looking back now!”

The Court found that the juror’s ONE Tweet suggested “the jury’s decision had been made and that it was too late to influence him.”  Fumo, 194.  Moreover, the message was “so vague as to be unclear.” Fumo, 194.

The Tweet had no details on the case facts or showed any favor/disfavor to anyone in the criminal trial.  Fumo, 194.

Facebook Settings & Status Messages

Fumo-Court's TagThe Court’s analysis of the Facebook Status Messages included reviewing the juror’s privacy settings.  The juror belonged to the 600,000 member Philadelphia network.  Anyone in this network could view his status messages.  Fumo, 195. 

The juror’s profile was configured so only “friends” could post comments on his profile.  “Friends” could either post messages on the juror’s “Wall” or send a Facebook Message.  Fumo, 195-196. 

Defense Counsel questioned the juror on for whose benefit he was writing his status messages.  The juror explained that his postings were:

“…more for my benefit to just get it out of my head, similar to a blog posting or somebody journaling something. It’s just to get it out there. And that’s what a lot of Facebook … it’s just to get — a way to electronically gets thoughts off your mind.”  Fumo, 196.

The Juror was questioned on whether any “non-friends” ever contacted him or did anything to influence his thinking on the case.  The juror answered:

“No. Because – - again, because they have to be someone that I befriended in order to be able to post on the wall. Whether or not they can see it, I’m not sure. But I know they can’t post on it without being one of my friends.” Fumo, 198-199.

The questioning of the juror was very extensive.  Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, would have been very proud of the juror’s explanation of Facebook’s appeal during the Defense questioning.  The juror described that “some people use [Facebook] for connection between other people. I use it, personally, as a way to journal my thoughts and get everything out.” Fumo, 199-200.

The Court’s Findings

The Court found no evidence that the juror was influenced by his Facebook postings.  There was no evidence “random individuals” contacting him.  Moreover, there was no evidence the juror’s “opaque” postings were detailed enough for members of the Philadelphia network to know what the juror was talking about. Fumo, 201.

Bow Tie Thoughts

Given the number of iPhone, BlackBerry and other smart phone users who can be in a potential jury, lawyers and judges should include “No Twitter, Facebook or social networking” in the jury instructions.

Dodging a Mistrial for Juror Misconduct

No Comment...jury misconductIn an age where reporters are Tweeting from Courthouses and Citizen Paparazzi (Snaparazzi) roam the streets with iPhones, one can imagine a slip of the tongue resulting in juror misconduct. 

In the nightmare case of an elderly defendant who drove through a farmers’ market, the question of juror misconduct surfaced via a reporter’s blog.  People v. Weller, 2009 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 4685, 44-45 (Cal. App. 2d Dist. 2009).

A reporter on her post-verdict blog stated that one juror sought spiritual counseling from his minister during a recess from deliberations.  Weller, 44.  

The Problem: A juror cannot discuss a pending trial with a nonjuror.  Weller, 44.

The only evidence offered to show any juror misconduct was the blog.

The blog was insufficient to show any misconduct, because there was no evidence that the juror discussed the case with his minister.  Weller, 44. 

Dodging Juror MisconductThings could have gotten exciting (on an evidentiary level) if the juror had been questioned on what he talked to his minister about, which could have resulted with the juror claiming the clergy- penitent privilege.

This privilege gives the penitent the right to refuse to disclose a penitential communication.  Cal Evid Code § 1033. 

One can wonder if the Defense could compel disclosure to show juror misconduct by claiming the Defendant’s Constitutional right to a fair trial. My guess would be “no,” because the verdict had already been issued and an appellate court will not be doing any fact finding.

If this had come up during trial, then perhaps the Trial Court would have simply excused the juror to avoid a clergy privilege vs Constitution showdown.

Anyone who has confidences to maintain, be it a juror, or a doctor, or anyone who wants to hold a private conversation, should be very careful with what they say in public. The ability for “citizen journalists” to post information in “real time” on Twitter, Facebook or a blog is a fact of life that can ruin your day.

Is the Circus in Town? Justifying a Change of Venue from Online Publicity

United States v. McRae, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 32411 (W.D. Tenn. Apr. 15, 2009) is a 1983 action against a police office for violating a prisoner’s rights.  The incident was captured on video and had been broadcast on the news, with denouncements and outcry from politicians, public figures, the Plaintiffs in the civil action and anonymous blog posters.  McRae, 1-2. 

The Defendant sought a change of venue because of the pretrial publicity.  McRae, 1-2.  The Defendant’s evidence of prejudice included a hard copy exhibit of a blog of local events.  The blog contained anonymous comments concerning the case, which the Defendant claimed prejudiced his case.  McRae, 4.

The Government opposed a transfer of venue and argued jury voir dire was the appropriate way to identify any actual prejudice to the Defendant.  McRae, 4.

Clown 1Courts can find a defendant has been prejudiced from pretrial publicity when “an inflammatory, circus-like atmosphere pervades both the courthouse and the surrounding community.” McRae, 5. 

In short, if the circus is not in town, the Court must evaluate actual prejudice against a defendant by questioning the jury pool during voir dire.

The test for a trial court to find prejudice from pretrial publicity is to review the media coverage and the prospective jurors’ statements at voir dire to decide “whether a community-wide sentiment exists against the defendant.”  McRae, 5-6, citations omitted.   

The Court held the pretrial publicity had NOT prejudiced the Defendant to warrant a transfer of venue.  While the case had a large amount of national and local press coverage, there was nothing to show a “trial atmosphere that [has] been utterly corrupted by press coverage.”  McRae, 8-9, citations omitted. 

Actual prejudice from online pretrial publicity might not be as obvious as a virtual circus in Second Life.  The analysis required to show pretrial prejudice from online coverage would probably be daunting.  A party might be required to produce search engine hits on a Defendant’s name or other case information, listserv topics, Twitter “Tweets,” comments from news websites and other online evidence to show prejudice. 

For now, the most effective way to handle any prejudice from online publicity is through questioning the jury pool to find any bias.  The Court will know a media circus when it sees one.  Until then, if you have a high profile case, be on the lookout for Casey Junior coming down the tracks.

The People Would Like to Thank the Blogger for His Jury Service

 My friends laughed hysterically when I had jury duty last year.  Apparently, the idea of a lawyer having to do his civic duty is funny.  And yes, for the record, I did wear my bow tie.

 

 During the jury selection process, my exchanged with the judge went as follows:

 

American judgeJudge: Sir, what is your career?

 

Bow Tie: I am a lawyer, your Honor.

 

Judge: I had a feeling.

 

 

 

 

 

I was told by one of the other dismissed jurors that both the prosecutor and defense counsel were shaking their heads “no” the entire time I was answering the Judge’s questions on technology in the courtroom, e-Discovery and my job experience.  The Prosecutor apparently did not like the fact I did a little criminal defense at the beginning of my career and I was promptly thanked for my service. 

 

 Litigation support software, trial presentation technology and Web 2.0 are not just impacting how we practice law today, but jury selection as well.  There is even a specialty industry forming in jury research that checks jurors’ Facebook and MySpace pages to learn more about those jurors. [1] 

 

 There have also been attempts to dismiss jurors for their blogging.  In Gregoire v. City of Oak Harbor, 2007 Wash. App. LEXIS 2929 ( Wash. Ct. App. Oct. 29, 2007 ), an attorney tried to excuse a juror for a blog.  The attorney discovered a blog written by a juror, in which the juror blogged about his experiences dealing with suicide in his job as a youth minister.

 

 During jury deliberations, trial counsel brought the blog to the trial court’s attention and asked that the juror be excused, arguing that the blog was inconsistent with the juror’s questionnaire. The juror-blogger had answered “no” to the question regarding whether he had ever been depressed or suicidal.

 

The trial court found that the blog comments regarding the juror’s encounters with suicide in his work as a youth minister were not inconsistent with the juror’s questionnaire.  Moreover, the blog did not show any bias, thus a challenge for cause would have been inappropriate.[2]   

 

 Attorneys would serve their clients well by asking prospective jurors if their blogging practices relate to any issues of the lawsuit during voir dire.  A juror’s activity on Web 2.0 might be totally harmless and not relevant to the lawsuit, but it never hurts to ask.

 


[1] Julie Kay, Social Networking Sites Help Vet Jurors, The National Law Journal, August 13, 2008, http://www.law.com/jsp/legaltechnology/pubArticleLT.jsp?id=1202423725315

 [2] Gregoire v. City of Oak Harbor, 2007 Wash. App. LEXIS 2929 ( Wash. Ct. App. Oct. 29, 2007 ),