The Massachusetts Court of Appeals today upheld a jury's conviction of a bookkeeper at Bridgewater State College for embezzling more than $355,000 in a year.
Clare Werner argued the conviction should be appealed because her lawyer discovered two of the jurors had posted complaints about being selected for the jury on Facebook and because the trial judge dismissed her complaint about that online activity even before Facebook had responded to the judge's subpoena for records related to the post.
But the Massachusetts Court of Appeals rejected the argument, saying that while the jurors probably shouldn't have posted anything at all, their posts revealed no information about the specific case and, more important, their posts contained no evidence that anybody outside the courtroom had supplied them with anything that might prejudice them in their deliberations. The wife of one of the jurors did reply to his complaint about being forced to server on a jury with a note reading "Anyway, just send her to Framingham quickly so you can be home for dinner on time," but the appeals court said this only showed the juror's "attitudinal exposition" about jury duty, not any prejudice against Werner.
The fact that Werner herself admitted "that she had stolen money on numerous occasions" meant the judge didn't really have to wait for Facebook's answer, the court added.
Still, the court continued, jurors should knock this nonsense off and not risk problems by communicating via social networks while they're in the middle of a trial or deliberations:
In the instant case, the trial judge had been quite explicit in her instructions. On the first day of trial, she instructed the jurors "not to chat about the case. Don't discuss it with anyone. Don't chat among yourselves.... Each morning I'm to ask you if you have spoken about the case to anyone ... have you read anything or heard anything about the case.... Because if you do read anything, if you do some investigation of your own, if you Google this, ... it results in a mistrial." Before releasing the jurors on the first day, she reiterated these points and inquired at the beginning of each trial day whether the jurors had talked about the case with anyone.
Apparently, even these instructions were not enough to keep jurors from at least alluding to their jury service on social media Web sites. More explicit instructions about the use of social media and the Internet may therefore be required. Instructions not to talk or chat about the case should expressly extend to electronic communications and social media, and discussions about the use of the Internet should expressly go beyond prohibitions on research. Jurors should not research, describe, or discuss the case on- or off-line. Jurors must separate and insulate their jury service from their digital lives. The Jury Commissioner also may wish to consider including in the Trial Juror's Handbook, which is distributed to all prospective jurors, an explicit warning about the use of social media during service as a juror.
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