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Sunday, March 22, 2009

Why Are Jurors Turning to Gadgets for Information?

A recent report spotlights a growing problem for the American justice system: Jurors increasingly are turning to electronic gadgets to conduct research about the cases they are hearing.

John Schwartz, of The New York Times, reports that this has led to mistrials in a number of high-profile cases, where jurors used cell phones, BlackBerrys and the like to conduct research. This directly violated judges' instructions and led to what legal experts are calling "Google mistrials."

The issue hits home here in Alabama for a couple of reasons: One, the issue of jurors improperly using e-mail was raised in the prosecution of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman. Two, the problem has become widespread--with recent examples in Florida, Arkansas, and Pennsylvania--and that makes me think many jurors might no longer trust the justice system.

Under the law, jurors are not supposed to seek information outside of the courtroom. They are required to reach a verdict based only on the facts the judge has decided are admissible. And they are supposed to base their decisions on the law as the judge presents it to them.

In other words, they are supposed to view the facts and the law through the prism formed by the judge. But jurors increasingly are ignoring admonitions about outside influences.

So what is going on? It's possible that increasing numbers of Americans are thoughtless clods who can't follow simple instructions. It's also possible that increasing numbers of Americans are so addicted to their gadgets that they simply cannot leave them alone, even while on jury duty. (Memo to courtroom managers: The problem easily can be solved by making sure that jurors turn in their gadgets for safe keeping throughout trials.)

Here at Legal Schnauzer, we suspect something else might be going on. When regular Americans get an up-close look at our justice system, they are likely to sense that it is deeply flawed in many cases and downright corrupt in some.

I know from firsthand experience, that it doesn't take exceptional powers of perception to see that something is amiss in many courthouses. Just consider the criminal-trespass case involving our neighbor, which led to him filing a bogus malicious-prosecution lawsuit against me. And that led to the legal sojourn that is at the heart of this blog.

After only one or two trips to the local courthouse, Mrs. Schnauzer and I began to suspect something was up. It took us a while to figure out exactly what was going on. But we had a sense early on that: (A) The judge wasn't following the law; (B) The prosecutor who was supposed to be representing our interests was utterly unprepared; (C) The opposing lawyer seemed to have unusual influence over, and access to, court personnel; and (D) The opposing party appeared to have no problem lying under oath so that he could get off for a crime that he later confessed to committing. (We later discovered that the opposing party had been convicted for numerous crimes before, so he knew how the system worked. And he probably had little regard for the notion that people are supposed to tell the truth when under oath.)

My guess is that many jurors, after spending several days or weeks getting an up-close view of our justice system, begin to smell something foul about the whole process. They probably don't trust lawyers from one side or the other (or both). They probably sense that some witnesses are blowing copious amounts of smoke. And most alarming of all, they probably think the judge is incompetent, crooked, or both.

The original New York Times report on this subject portrayed it as an alarming development, a sign that rogue jurors are sullying our sacrosanct and honorable "justice" system.

I think it might actually be a positive sign. I think many jurors are saying, "Good God, this whole system is a mess, and it's led by judges who don't appear to be trustworthy. I'm going to use the technology at my disposal to try to see that justice is done."

Perhaps I'm giving these jurors more credit than they deserve. But I think some of them realize that they are the only persons in the whole process, aside from wronged parties, who actually care about justice being served.

If my experience is any guide, those jurors are probably right on target.

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