Juror Faces Jail Time for Googling Defendant
Judges are struggling to control the flow of social media into their courtrooms. One Florida judge, burned already by jurors whose violations of his orders not to talk about or research cases have caused mistrials and other disruptions, may be sending a juror to jail.
Vishnu Singh was a juror in a capital murder trial in Hillsborough Circuit Judge William Fuente’s courtroom until Oct. 10, when Judge Fuente discovered that Singh had Googled the defendant on a break, violating his written order to the jury to not research or talk about the case. Judge Fuente kicked Singh out of the courthouse and told him to expect a jail sentence.
Singh told the Orlando Sentinel that he barely remembered the judge’s written order. “I remember a piece of paper,” he told the paper. “I didn’t read the whole thing.”
Death Penalty Elevates Seriousness
Judge Fuente was particularly careful to make sure the jury understood his warnings, which are typical in criminal cases, according to Todd Pittenger, a litigator with Akerman Senterfitt in Orlando, Fla.
“In every criminal trial, the jurors are told the same thing when the judge reads the standard jury instructions to them, and those pronouncements are the law and constitute orders even if not written or handed out in order form,” says Pittenger.
Some of Judge Fuente’s vigilance was born of experience: he had already seen another recent murder trial – this one involving a defendant accused of five murders including two Tampa police officers – go down the drain after he found that prospective jurors were discussing the multiple charges during their breaks. That trial was stopped in August.
The current trial – of Kenneth Ray Jackson, who was convicted in September of raping and killing a 50-year-old woman in 2007 – is the penalty phase of a capital case. This was actually the state’s second attempt to try Jackson; the first trial went south in 2011 when lawyers couldn’t get enough jurors who were willing to impose the death penalty.
“The stakes are much higher, and therefore the cost to taxpayers and to the justice system in terms of delay from the mistrial are greater, because this is a capital murder case,” Pittenger says. “A criminal defendant’s life is on the line, and the victim’s family had their long-awaited day in court delayed because of what the dismissed juror did.”
Don’t Google That
The case illustrates the stresses – and the cost – that social media is putting on the criminal justice system. “The dismissed juror caused a mistrial, and that means he is responsible for a great deal of legal expense to the system and for delay in deciding a serious case,” Pittenger says.
“It is an unfortunate symptom of our online society that jurors believe it is okay to do their own investigation, but that goes against the essence of what a fair trial, governed by the rules of evidence and the law, is all about,” he explains.
“The Internet makes it easy for jurors [to] do what they have never been allowed to do, which is inform themselves about the case outside the courtroom,” Pittenger adds. “It is ease of access to the Internet that has led to more and more problems.”
Fuente en Fuego
Judge Fuente did the right thing by dismissing the case early and saving the expense of fully retrying the case, since the defendant would likely appeal any conviction based on Singh’s actions, Pittenger says.
Singh could be in serious trouble, facing jail time for his violation of the judge’s order – a contempt charge. He told the Sentinel he couldn’t hire a lawyer and planned to write Judge Fuente a nice letter apologizing. Pittenger says it will be up to Judge Fuente to take into account any excuses, such as whether the juror fully understood the seriousness of the situation.
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