Last week in Washington County Circuit Court, a judge dismissed a jury that had already deliberated for more than four hours over two days after he became aware that two jurors disobeyed his orders and looked up legal concepts on their home computers.What kind of monster would try to educate himself about relevant legal matters before participating in handing down a verdict that will alter someone's life? Leave all that fancy lawyer talk to the experts. Your job as a juror is to vote in line with the level of intellect and specific prejudices you displayed during voir dire.
"It isn't becoming a trend -- it is a trend," said Douglas Keene, an Austin, Texas, forensic psychologist who has worked with juries for 15 years and is president-elect of the American Society of Trial Consultants.
"I think it happens a great deal more than is reported," Keene said. Mistrials based on jurors getting outside information are not common but are happening more, he said.
In a note passed to Washington County Circuit Judge Donald Letourneau on Thursday morning, the jury foreman said two jurors had gone home the night before and looked up "implied consent" and "beyond a reasonable doubt" on a Web site. One of them also looked up the accuracy of a field sobriety test administered in the case.
"In an ironic way, those jurors probably thought they were being helpful," Keene noted. "They were probably stuck on their understanding of something and deliberations were going long, and one or two of them said to themselves, 'I'm going to help out, I'm going to look it up.' "That certainly is ironic, assuming by ironic he means "not ironic in the least", which I know has been the prevailing definition for some time.
Letourneau told the jurors that looking up the information, "as a practical matter, really undercut the process." He could have found them in contempt of court and fined or jailed them, but didn't because he said the two jurors reacted as humans.Pussy! Jail time is the only way they'll learn.
"I totally sympathize with that," Letourneau said.
"Ninety-nine percent of jurors follow the judge's instructions," said Thomas Kohl, Washington County presiding judge. "Or I should say I hope 99 percent are following the instructions."Which is more disturbing, if he's wrong or if he's right? If as a juror you are unwilling to educate yourself about a legal issue relevant to your case, I say you are either slavishly devoted to the law, right or wrong (which makes you a good little authoritarian and an ideal cog in the machine) or you are uninterested in the fairness of your verdict.
Every force in our system of "justice" exerts evolutionary pressure toward the stupid and the proudly ignorant. How far does all this go? If I receive a jury summons in the mail, can I try to understand reasonable doubt before I go in? Judge's explanations about what constitutes reasonable doubt and notoriously vague and variable. Anyone who wants something real to go on is a danger to this utterly perverse idea of "fairness" and must be excluded.
Internet information is particularly dangerous, Thuemmel said, because Web sites often are run by people or organizations with a bias.Other information sources however are as pure as the driven snow. It's that internet, always that damned internet. Get off my lawn!
"I didn't know if they went to a defense Web site or a cop Web site," he said. "Web sites can say anything, and very little of it is true."
I should say I have no problem with forbidding jurors from reading about the case they're involved in - my issue is with this absurd idea that the exact set of prejudices and misconceptions you hold when you enter the courtroom must be preserved at all costs, except to the degree that you can be led and misled by the trial participants.