No, You Can't Befriend the Defendant, Either . . .

The right to trial by jury has been with us since the nation was founded, but there are times when its role as an impartial finder of fact is tested by developments that the Founding Fathers could not even begin to imagine. 

Facebook, for example.   

A recent traffic accident case in Judge Wade Birdwell’s Fort Worth courtroom demonstrates the challenges that the Internet and social media pose to the right to trial by jury, which depends upon all twelve jurors avoiding any outside influence on their decisions.  As always, the jurors in Fort Worth were instructed not to discuss the case and specifically were prohibited from posting related commentary on social media. 
Despite the warnings, juror Jonathan Hudson, 22, sent a Facebook friend request to the defendant on the first day of trial. After the defendant told her lawyer about the message, Judge Birdwell immediately removed Hudson from the jury panel. Though he complained that he was unfairly targeted – not surprisingly, on his Facebook page – Hudson pleaded guilty to contempt of court and was sentenced to two days of community service.

The prosecutor called it a first, but it probably won’t be the last.  Today’s 22-year-olds have a far different and more integrated experience with social media and the Internet than do older generations – including most lawyers and judges – and the ubiquitous smart phone makes it incredibly easy for a juror to send inappropriate communications or conduct research on the case they have been asked to decide.

It is worth noting that the defense lawyer immediately notified the judge of the juror’s transgression, even though that juror – given his interest in the defendant – was probably one he would have liked to keep. The defense attorney’s actions show two things: that good lawyers take seriously their obligation to ensure the fairness of the tribunal (unlike they are often portrayed on TV), and that they will have their hands full in the future trying to protect the integrity of the jury trial from the intrusions of the information age.       

Posted: 9/8/2011 12:16:14 PM by On the Merits Editor | with 0 comments

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Thanks for stopping by On the Merits, the first blog from the Texas Center for Legal Ethics. On the Merits will take a close look at significant legal stories with an eye toward addressing the legal myths and misconceptions that turn up in news stories, movies, TV programs, websites, anonymous emails and other forms of mass communications. Our goal at On the Merits is to provide readers with a thoughtful examination of what the media and others are saying about the legal profession and to apply the frequently-absent context of how the legal system actually works.

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