Friday, November 06, 2009

"Google Mistrial"

This editorial, published in today's Boston Globe, caught my eye because my husband is currently serving on a federal grand juror here in New York, where cell phones and other electronic devices are banned from the courthouse. The editorial discusses the growing phenomenon of "tweeting, texting, and obsessive e-mail checking" which now threatens the jury system. "Increasingly, courts have had to warn jurors that blogging or searching the Web during trial jeopardizes the very foundations of the judicial system." The author, Renee Loth, cites examples from trials in Florida, Arkansas, and Massachusetts that were compromised by jurors Googling the defendant, checking definitions of legal terms, "unearthing evidence that had been explicitly excluded," and sending Twitter messages from the courtroom. Loth says that the "problem is widespread enough that legal experts have coined the term 'Google mistrials.' No verdict has yet been overturned for texting-while-deliberating, but the retrials themselves are costly and gum up the wheels of justice." Loth points out that the Internet has made everyone an expert (think about the proliferation of medical information that has changed the relationship between doctor and patient), and people are used to seeking out information on their own. However, there is a downside to seeking out information on our own. "'The rise of digital technology has devalued expertise across the board,' observed journalist Mat[t] Bai ... Such a cultural shift has dire implications for a trial system that relies on testimony from expert witnesses" and on jurors who are expected to weigh only the evidence that is presented to them in court. Of course, nothing but her conscience prevents a juror from going home at night and researching the defendant's prior criminal history or even reading in the newspaper or online about the very case she is trying.

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