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Jury instructions to include rules on use of new media

By KENT HARRIS | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 21, 2009

Recent incidents of jurors using new media during cases in civilian courtrooms in the States have led a military judge to rework instructions given to panelists in military courts-martial.

Army Col. Ted Dixon, a military judge who edits the military judges’ benchbook, said he’s not aware of any cases of a servicemember posting information on an ongoing court-martial while serving as a juror, but he’s aware of such events in the civilian world.

Recent cases include:

  • A juror in Arkansas tweeted to friends about a $12 million verdict he helped decide against a company, and the company used his tweets as a reason to appeal the verdict;
  • A judge in a drug case in Florida declared a mistrial after learning that nine jurors surfed the Internet looking for more information on the case;
  • A juror in New York tried to get a witness to become a Facebook friend during the trial;
  • A juror in the United Kingdom reportedly asked her Facebook friends to help her decide a case, and as a result was tossed off the jury;
  • A judge in Utah sentenced the wife of a defendant to a few days in jail because of text messages she sent during her husband’s trial.

As a result of cases like these, Dixon said he’s been working on specific language addressing networking phenomena such as Twitter and Facebook that judges would use when instructing troops who sit on court-martial panels. Fellow judges have been providing him feedback and there seems to be a general consensus, he said.

“I fully expect a new version (of jury instructions) will be adopted soon,” Dixon said in a telephone interview.

In the meantime, some judges are already using their own versions. In recent courts-martial in Italy, Army and Air Force judges have warned jurors not to talk about the trial with others using any form of communication.

Dixon said he can’t recall a case during his time as a judge where a juror has openly defied his instructions.

“Most people, especially in the military, are going to follow the instructions of the judge,” he said. So if they’re told they can’t do something, they won’t, he said.

Judges have long told jurors not to discuss cases with anyone else or attempt to do research on their own. Such instruction is important, Dixon said, because jurors are supposed to reach decisions based solely on the facts they’re presented during the trial.

If they find out some other information on their own — no matter how important it might be to help them decide a case — they’re not supposed to consider it.

Still, Dixon said it’s possible that some people might not think twice about posting a quick message about the latest development in their lives.

“Some of us have been around so long … I couldn’t Twitter if I wanted to,” he said. “But for some of our younger panel members … [social networking] is almost second nature.”

In addition to the military, some states have taken notice of the use of new media among jurors. The Wisconsin Law Journal reported online that the state was drafting instructions specifically aimed at social networking while on jury duty.


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