The Seattle Times is reporting a growing problem in criminal courts. As more people become accustomed to using the Internet, courts are finding that jurors are using cell phones and the internet to educate themselves about the cases they are involved with. This is a big concern in Maine as well because juries are supposed to only be exposed to the information presented in court.
Jurors have always been told to avoid discussing cases with family and other jury members as well as to avoid watching television news and reading the paper in order to keep their opinions objective. Beyond that, courts have not been overly concerned about jury members learning more about the cases outside of court. Now, with the Internet making so much information available to people, jury members are, sometimes unwittingly, educating themselves about cases, the defendant and the law. While this might seem like a good thing, courts do not necessarily want jurors to be overly educated on legal matters. The purpose of this in so that the jury can decide whether or not the situation presented to them fits the description of the crime. When juries are aware of what the penalties are for crimes, they may be more likely to convict based on what penalties they think the defendant should face rather than what actual offense was committed.
The article focuses on one story in particular where a jury member admitted to researching the penalties for the crimes involved in the case. After five weeks of trial in a rape case, the judge had to rule for a new trial because she felt that the jury's opinion had been tainted. The jury was in deliberation deciding between whether the charges should be first-degree or second-degree rape. The jury was to determine whether they thought the circumstances made up a first-degree or second-degree charge. One jury member admitted that he researched online what the penalties of each offense were. The judge felt that this led to a bias opinion because jury members now knew what the sentence thing would be.
Not only is having to perform a retrial a waste of time and government money, it also requires a rape victim to have to testify once again. The article talks about how this is a growing problem and how courts are scrambling to find ways to stop it. In Maine, as in most other states, jurors must turn in their cell phones while in a courthouse. While this is a good short-term solution, nothing is stopping jury members from doing research at home or during their breaks. Judges have also tried holding jury members personally responsible for their actions. One judge in New Hampshire even went as far as place a juror in contempt of court and fine then $1,200 for doing internet research on a case.
This is a troubling situation, but penalizing jury members is most likely not the best course of action. Jurors should not feel like they are being punished for doing their civic duty. More education on the consequences of their actions may be the best alternative. Explaining to jurors that researching the Internet about the trial may lead to a mistrial could be effective because when that happens victims are caused additional stress and a criminal may go free.