Internet Wrecks Due Process

Increasingly, mistrials are being called because jurors are improperly accessing the internet to do research on a case. The biggest issue is the possibility that jurors would discover prejudicial evidence that had previously been excluded as inadmissible by a trial judge. A juror might discover for instance that John Doe has a prior record for x crime, biasing him toward conviction. The NYT sums it up:

They are required to reach a verdict based on only the facts the judge has decided are admissible, and they are not supposed to see evidence that has been excluded as prejudicial. But now, using their cellphones, they can look up the name of a defendant on the Web or examine an intersection using Google Maps, violating the legal system’s complex rules of evidence.

One can see how deeply ingrained our collective trust in Internet fact-gathering is. Trial by jury — and the highly complex rules of Anglo-American evidence law that accompany it — is itself a means of information seeking, but one which attempts to exclude unfair or unfairly obtained evidence (as determined by a judge).  By contrast, the sheer openness of the web is naturally more democratic, but also less judicious in what is available for consumption. When it comes to deciding on a high profile case, the potential for outside distortion is much higher, and amplified by an internet bursting with news and speculation. I think defense lawyers have a lot to worry about here.

The only positive thing I liked about this story was that jurors also used smart phones and the internet to look up complicated legal definitions. That kind of fact finding, into the complex procedural rules of our system, strikes me as healthy for an active citizenry. A google search for “legal terms” pulls up results a lot of sources more reputable than Wikipedia and tailored to American law. Why shouldn’t jurors find this?

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One Response to “Internet Wrecks Due Process”

  1. G. Says:

    I wonder what will come out from this conference:
    http://www.estonianfreepress.com/2009/03/internet-and-democracy-do-they-really-go-together/
    Maybe we could compare the views after!