Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Should Jurors Use the Internet?

In Should Jurors Use the Internet? (National Law Review, Dec. 6, 2010), Gareth Lacy observes that stronger admonishments might be counterproductive: An instruction that "fails to explain why the 'system of justice' requires restricting access to outside information . . . will likely continue to feed jury -- and public -- mistrust for the legal system."

Responding to the assumption that any outside information would bias jurors, Lacy takes a look at some of the studies.

Researchers have also found that when juries learn substantial and contrary information from evidence and judicial instructions during trial, they are capable of displacing information received before trial. In other words, prior beliefs are diluted by new, relevant information. When trial evidence is strong, this can reduce the effect of bias and external information: "the effect of irrelevant, inadmissible, or biasing information is reduced in its effect to the degree that relevant, probative evidence is available for the jurors’ consideration." Again, this suggests that courts should manage the flow of information rather than make unrealistic efforts to weed out all juror expo­sure to the Internet.
(citations omitted). Lacy recommends some alternatives to finger-wagging admonishments:
Jurors are not going to stop looking at outside information. The best way to keep jurors away from Wikipedia would be to sequester them. But seques­tration is rarely practical on a large scale because it is prohibitively expensive and tends to promote mistrust for the jury system. A more realistic response would be for attorneys and courts to conduct advance Internet research to identify what information about their case is available online, analyze that information, and then deal with it during trial. Another realistic response would be to give jurors the tools they need to make informed decisions in court so they do not need to conduct outside research.
(citations omitted).

Gareth Lacy is a UW 3L. This article was a winner of the National Law Review's law student writing competition. Congrats, Gareth!

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