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Jun 8, 2017

Juror Gets 30 Days, Fine for Online Research

A juror in a high-profile criminal trial of five members of a church for beating a gay congregant has been held in contempt and sentenced to 30 days in jail and fined $500 for doing independent research online about (archaic, it turns out) North Carolina law and distributing it to fellow jurors. Besides punishing the juror, the judge also declared a mistrial in the case.

Punishing a juror for outside research is relatively rare; but as I've written before, jurors conducting research and communicating about cases online is a growing problem for the courts.

Several months ago, I participated in a roundtable on the issue organized by the National Institute of Justice, the policy arm of the federal courts.

I have advocated that courts adopt and use detailed jury instructions that not only frequently admonish jurors not to conduct online research, but also explain to them the consequences of such behavior: not only possible fines and jail time for jurors found in contempt, but also the likelihood that the discovery that such research was conducted will result in a mistrial.

I believe that most jurors want to do a good job: in fact, it is that mission that often leads jurors to conduct research in order to understand the case and "get it right." Judges, lawyers and other participants in the legal system must understand this, treat jurors with respect, and explain to them the reasons and consequences of researching cases beyond the evidence presented in court.

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