A friend recently shared a story that left me deeply concerned about the integrity of our jury system in the digital age. Selected for a criminal case, she was instructed, as all jurors are, not to research anything about the case online. Yet, the temptation proved too strong, and she immediately went online, consuming everything she could find about the arrest.

While she did not disclose this to the court, she acknowledged she would have been truthful if the court had made a follow-up inquiry, however, the issue was never raised again. I suspect this experience is not unique to my friend.

Just last month, lawyers-extraordinaire Brian Albritton, Raquel Jefferson, and I concluded a month-long fraud trial in federal court. The matter received widespread media attention both before and during the trial. Haunted by my friend’s story and aware of the potential for juror misconduct, we requested the court to inquire daily whether jurors had been exposed to any news or conducted independent research on the case. The court, however, declined our request, relying solely on the standard admonition given at the outset of the trial and supplemented with daily reminders.

This reliance on simple warnings is, in my opinion, dangerously outdated. We live in a world where information is available at our fingertips. The urge to Google, to scroll through social media, to seek out additional information beyond what is presented in the courtroom, is often powerful.

This poses a significant threat to the foundation of our legal system, which rests on the principle of a fair trial, where decisions are based solely on the evidence presented in court. Jurors exposed to extraneous information, whether consciously or unconsciously, risk bias and prejudice, potentially impacting the outcome of a case.

The consequences of this type of juror misconduct can be devastating because of its potential to result in wrongful convictions. In high-profile cases, where media coverage is extensive and public interest is high, the risk is even greater.

jury system in the digital age

We need to acknowledge this reality and adapt our approach to juror instructions and monitoring. Here are some potential solutions:

  • Daily inquiries: Regularly asking jurors about potential exposure to outside information can serve as a reminder of their duty and deter misconduct. Perhaps even an admonition that willful disregard of the court’s instruction could lead to a charge of contempt.
  • Technology restrictions: Implementing stricter controls on juror access to smartphones and the internet during trials could be considered.
  • Social media monitoring: In sensitive cases, monitoring juror social media activity for potential breaches could be explored with appropriate safeguards for privacy.
  • Enhanced juror education: Providing jurors with comprehensive training on the dangers of external influence and the importance of relying solely on courtroom evidence is crucial.

These are just some starting points for a necessary conversation. We must acknowledge that the digital age presents new challenges to our justice system, and we must adapt to ensure that verdicts are based on facts presented in court, not on information gleaned from the internet or social media.

The integrity of our legal system depends on it.