Hello welcome to this JACPA Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the recent media reports about a New Jersey juror who was held in contempt and fined by a trial judge for conducting research on sentencing during a criminal case and then voting to find the defendant not guilty, which resulted in a mistrial.
According to the recent media reports (including the ABA Journal online and the Cliffview Pilot online), a New Jersey judge presiding over a criminal case in which the defendant had been charged with selling 1,500 Ecstasy pills to an undercover officer reminded jurors daily and before each break not to conduct Internet research about the case; however, the foreman of the jury apparently ignored the judge’s instructions.
The juror apparently determined through his online research that the defendant would receive a minimum of 10 years in prison if found guilty of selling the 1,500 Ecstasy pills. He subsequently voted to find the defendant not guilty and, as a result of the juror’s vote, the jury deadlocked and a mistrial was declared. An alternate juror who lived next to another judge mentioned her concern about the research and another juror contacted the county prosecutor’s office to report it.
The trial judge recently found juror guilty of criminal contempt and fined him $500.00 and said that he did not impose the maximum penalties of six months in jail and a $1,000.00 fine for the willful violation because the juror is a father of three and recently lost his job. The judge stated that he believed that some significant punishment was necessary to deter others from potentially doing the same thing and that should not be unreasonable to expect jurors to follow instructions about abstaining from Internet research.
According to the reports, the judge stated that he “understands instant access to seemingly endless amounts of information is a reality of today’s world. And this fact, by and large, should be celebrated…(however), this court rejects the notion the American courtroom, with its constraints and controls developed over the centuries, with its methodical and deliberate means of proceeding, is somehow incompatible with or outdated in today’s world of high-speed information on demand. Indeed, the proliferation of electronic information renders the sterilized atmosphere of a courtroom even more important.
“When a juror conducts independent research, he bypasses the rules of evidence and allows the information to evade the judge’s scrutiny, thereby running the risk he is considering improper information and, consequently, reducing the chances of a just verdict.” “Our system of justice cannot function if a juror’s distrust of, or lack of confidence in, the court legitimized his disobedience of its orders or if a judge’s instructions were deemed merely ‘advisory,’ with jurors free to violate them when they saw fit, even if in good conscience…jurors are not at liberty to disregard the court’s instructions, even when they fear obedience would somehow result in injustice.”
Bottom line: Although not directly related to lawyer ethics, as all lawyers know (specifically trial lawyers), the potential that jurors may secretly access the instant information available on the Internet is an important emerging issue which may (and clearly did in this case) negatively fairness of trials and the integrity of our judicial system. Quite frankly, to me it is also just a little bit scary…
…be careful out there!
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