When a curious juror used Google and looked up information about a Fulton County rape case last month, a seemingly innocent misstep resulted in a mistrial.
Fulton County Superior Court Judge Constance Russell fined the juror $500 for violating jury instructions. She had warned jurors at the outset not to perform independent research about the case.
"The process is so important, and the integrity is so important --- that is the reason for those instructions," said the defense attorney who represented Damond McCord, the defendant. "When a juror violates those instructions, it really kind of throws a monkey wrench into the entire system."
Across the nation, courts are struggling to catch up with and reign in the runaway use of new media. Georgia judges are mulling a modification to jury instructions that would specifically warn jurors not to use Web sites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google. A committee of judges is revising the wording for proposed changes, which will be discussed at an upcoming meeting in July, according to Fulton County Superior Court Judge Melvin Westmoreland, head of the state Council of Superior Court Judges.
The changes probably will be implemented at one of the council's next meetings in July or January, Westmoreland said.
Earlier this year, federal courts led the way on the issue by adopting a set of so-called "Twitter instructions" for district judges to deter jurors' use of electronic devices or media. The instructions are to be read to jurors at the start of trial and before deliberations. They also warn against visits to any Internet chat room, blog or Web site such as Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, YouTube or Twitter.
"Such use has resulted in mistrials, exclusion of jurors and imposition of fines," according to a memo to federal judges from the committee chief, U.S. District Court Judge Julie Robinson of Topeka, Kan.
The Indiana Supreme Court last month banned laptops, cellphones and other electronic devices from the courtroom and jury room.
Superior Court Judge David Barrett of the Enotah Judicial Circuit in North Georgia heads the judges committee that is crafting new instructions for Georgia. Banning electronic devices from the courtroom or jury room does not address the equally precarious problem of jurors doing research at home, Barrett said.
Georgia's instructions will borrow from federal court instructions as well as other state courts such as Oregon. They will contain prohibitions against communicating about the case on social networking Web sites such as Twitter or Facebook. They will discourage the jury from using search engines such as Yahoo or Google for independent research.
"Most of us judges have been giving charges to the jury not to talk to anybody, including other jurors, about the case," Barrett said. "What this does is merely bulk that up to be more explicit as it applies to other means of electronic media."
Jurors who perform independent research have their opinions colored by information that prosecutors and defense attorneys are unable to refute. Therein lies the problem, said a lawyer, legal affairs writer and longtime member of the American Bar Association's American Jury Commission.
A curious juror easily could dig up a defendant's criminal history or discover evidence that was excluded from trial because it was illegally obtained. Jurors also could use the Internet to look up a confusing legal term and wind up with misinformation. Any of those actions would prevent the defendant from having a fair trial.
He said jurors will listen and obey if courts can do a better job explaining why independent research is harmful.
"Jurors want to do the right thing," he said. "The key is it needs to be simple enough for jurors to understand why you shouldn't do this."