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Sunday, May 10, 2009

Ind. Courts - "Expecting jurors not to be tempted by a mountain of information just fingertips away is a national issue, one local court officials must deal with as well"

So writes Stacey Stumpf of the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette in this opinion piece. More:

“We have strict rules of evidence, all of which are in place for a purpose. Telling jurors to ignore certain information doesn’t work. It’s like throwing a skunk in the jury box and telling them not to smell it,” said Steve Russell, professor of criminal justice at Indiana University in Bloomington and a retired Texas trial judge. * * *

Jurors are not supposed to discuss what they hear in the courtroom outside the courtroom. When making a decision, they are allowed to consider only evidence given in court. But instances where jurors are using technology to break these long-honored rules are popping up more frequently. The justice system will decline if the courts don’t learn to adapt to the realities of technology.

“If someone Googles an event,” Russell said, “they are going to get everything that’s been put online, and that could include a site devoted to one side of a case. Then you not only get one side, but you get one side of questionable material. Often stuff that’s frankly too much like untreated sludge to make it into newspapers makes its way into blogs. And key words bring up those blogs and yes, it could be deadly to the case.” * * *

Allen County’s courts are somewhat less vulnerable to jurors posting comments during a trial since county judges banned cell phones and other electronic devices from the courthouse in 2007.

The ban was put in place to eradicate annoying distractions in courtrooms, but principally it is a safety measure adopted to protect jurors. “I had people in the building taking pictures of jurors, and that concerned me,” Allen Superior Court Judge Fran Gull said. “I was doing a gang-related trial at the time, and a photograph of a juror was posted online.”

“We’re uncommon. We were the first in the state to ban cell phones in the buildings and one of the first in the state to remove cell phones from potential jurors before that,” Gull said.

The ban can be inconvenient, and many continue to debate its fairness. But the ban does help avoid some of the problems access to expanding technology poses for the justice system.

While many people have the image of jurors being sequestered without access to phones and TV, in Indiana, that occurs only for the highest-profile cases. Usually, they are sent home with an admonishment – quite difficult to enforce – not to read about or talk about the case.

The lengthy article concludes:
Courts have to trust juries. But they need to update jury instructions at the same pace as technology. With every new iPhone application, courts need to roll out a newer version of user instructions.

U.S. District Court Judge Sarah Evans Barker wisely said courts need to anticipate curious jurors and be prepared for it. “You have to acknowledge the obvious. People are going to go online. They are used to using it, and they like using it. Unless we provide specific instructions otherwise, they are likely to do what they are used to doing and use it. Sources of information are so much wider now, and it’s easy access,” she said.

Barker said technology and easy access to information requires judges to be more sophisticated and ask more expansive questions of jurors during voir dire – the process of questioning potential jurors about their background and potential biases used to seat a jury. “You have to make it very clear. No twitters. No tweets. No nothing!”

Technology is not an enemy of justice. Advances in technology have done more to improve the court system than to harm it. Technology allows trial courts to run more efficiently and more easily provide needed information to judges, lawyers and jurors. But the courts need to adopt new strategies so the less savory uses of technology don’t threaten a revered court system.

For more, check this ILB entry from April 30 and follow the link to earlier entries.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on May 10, 2009 05:42 PM
Posted to Indiana Courts