Jury Duty in an Online World

Terry L. WilsonMichigan Department of Corrections photo

Terry L. Wilson, Age 22

Written by Ethan Paul, undergraduate student at the Pennsylvania State University

Following a jury trial held in Macomb County Circuit Court in Mount Clemons,Terry L. Wilson, 22, was convicted of premeditated murder and firearm possession for his involvement in the May 2013 shooting death of William Clark, 24. Wilson was sentenced to life without parole by Judge Jennifer Faunce on July 2014. As the Macomb Daily, a news outlet local to the region, reported on February 24th:

After the verdict, Wilson’s defense attorney complained the trial was tainted by one juror commenting about the case on Facebook and another jury indicating she felt pressured to reach the verdict. The appeals panel notes in its seven-page opinion released Wednesday the juror’s experience was typical, and the juror agreed with the verdict when members were polled by the court clerk.

The complaint filed by the defendant is yet another example of the tension between the design of the jury system, which exposes jurors to a carefully screened body of evidence and argument, and the hyper-connected online world in which jurors now live.

Jury trials, initially established for criminal cases in 1219 by some accounts, serve, in their abstract theoretical form, as a medium through which decision-making authority can be given to a body whose membership reflects the community in which the crime took place. Community members, rather than legal experts, are given interpretive authority for a fundamental reason: They should, through natural processes, have the best understanding of how the community functions and should render a judgment in light of that local cultural knowledge. Placing some of the authority in the hands of normal citizens allows punishments to be given according to local preferences. (For more on this theme, see Albert Dzur’s Punishment, Participatory Democracy, and the Jury.)

The jury is inherently democratic in this respect, but that design was optimized for a world in which communities are remained somewhat isolated from the outside world. How will such juries function in a world without boundaries–the one that Thomas Friedman famously declared to have become “flat”?

Consider this. The Pew Research Center reported that social-media use has skyrocketed in the past ten years. Now, “65% of adults now use social networking sites- a nearly tenfold jump in the past decade.”

In another Pew Research Center study, examining the relationship between the introduction of new technology and social identity, they found that:

Americans have fewer close ties to those from their neighborhoods and from voluntary associations….New technologies, such as the internet and mobile phone, may play a role in advancing this trend…The type of social ties supported by these technologies are relatively weak and geographically dispersed, not the strong, often locally-based ties that tend to be a part of peoples’ core  discussion network.

In a world where an increasing proportion of citizens associate themselves with–and thus see themselves from the perspective of–a decentralized, online community, rather than a localized one, can juries continue to function in a localized, communal way that, in turn, produces the best outcomes? Or will the deliberative process breakdown according to cleavages that exist across social-media and other platforms, producing outcomes along other preference dimensions?

This contradiction between the jury’s original design and this new reality does not doom the institution. Often, the online links back to the jury prove less worrisome than they might seem.

For instance, returning to the case that started this post, the Macomb Daily newspaper further reported, appeals judges found that “whether the juror in question may have felt pressured by another juror to reach a verdict was part of the deliberation process.”

Attorneys also learned the jury foreman responded to a Facebook friend who said it was “cool” the foreman served on a jury. “Not cool a young man is dead another young man will be in prison for a long time maybe,” the foreman wrote on his Facebook page Saturday, May 31, 2014, a day after closing arguments.

Regarding that correspondence, the appeals judges found, “no connection between the conversation and either a material aspect of the case or the jury’s verdict.”

Instilled within the ruling given by the three-judge appeals panel is a more optimistic vision of how social media and the existing jury system may coexist. Rather than social media serving to erode the the jury’s deliberative perspective, social media can serve to expand and promote the deliberative process. The foreman posted on Facebook and generated local conversation, which, under circumstances where social media use was limited in some way, would otherwise not have occurred. In a sense, the Facebook posts did no more than connect the trial to a wider public, and not in a way that influenced the trial outcome.

States and counties are already experimenting with different ways of handling social media, and the National Center for State Courts has a resource guide courts can use to set their own standards.  It might be more useful to take a more experimental approach, with enough jurisdictions participating the gauge the differential impact of systematically varied policies for handling social media. No such experiment is underway, to our knowledge, so in the meantime, a patchwork of policies and practices will continue as courts try to grapple with the changing social reality of jury service.

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This entry was posted in Conducting trials, Deliberation on juries, Jury structure and reform, Social/political impact of juries. Bookmark the permalink.

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