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Courts wrestle with impact of social media on juries

Two jurors were recently dismissed from a Lackawanna County homicide trial because they mentioned their involvement in the trial on Facebook. This case highlights an emerging issue for both the civil and criminal legal system: the impact of social media on the supposed sanctity of the jury.

Law students learn in their earliest days in law school that the jury must be insulated from all outside influences while they are serving as jurors. Judges in Pennsylvania and every other state routinely instruct jurors at the beginning of every trial that, as long as the trial lasts, they must not talk about the case, even with family members, and that they are prohibited from reading about the case or searching for information about it. The two Lackawanna county jurors obviously did not think that the judge's instruction applied to their cell phones or iPads.

The case of the Lackawanna County jurors is not unique. The recent proliferation of social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, that can be used on a cell phone or portable device has raised new problems in enforcing the jury's insularity because these devices and applications make it very easy for a juror to inadvertently disclose information about the case they must decide upon. As judges scratch their heads about what to do, the American Bar Association has recently said that lawyers may explore the social media activity of jurors during a trial. The ABA also said that lawyers are free to view social media sites to learn about the views and attitudes of potential jurors or whether sitting jurors are using social media to talk about a case while the trial is continuing.

Juror misconduct can have several consequences, ranging from dismissal of the offending jurors to declaration of a mistrial or, in extreme circumstances, reversal of a criminal conviction. The importance of having experienced trial counsel in such cases cannot be overemphasized.

Source: The Tribune-Democrat, "Courts wrestle with social media's impact." Kathy Mellott, June 28, 2014

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