Perhaps the legal community is overreacting about the growing problem of potential jurors texting, using social media, and the Internet to disclose or receive information that may bias them to the case before them. But perhaps this overreaction is justified because we all understand that while we may try to prevent jurors from abusing the power of the Internet in the courtroom or while being actively involved in a case, we cannot stop the actions of people who cannot or will not stop their own curiosity. Incidents from all over the country have reached the eyes and ears of newsreaders about just how curious and intrusive some people can be with the spread of information that supports their own thoughts and perspectives.
In September, The Post-Standard revealed that during the Romeo Williams manslaughter case, in which Williams was accused of killing a 70 year-old man in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven, one juror received a text message from her co-worker concerning the defendant. The message stated that Williams had once been a student at the school the juror currently taught at and that Williams was "guilty as sin." The sender further stated that, presumably because of the connection of the teacher to Williams' former school, if the juror did not recuse herself from the case, Williams' conviction would get overturned on appeal. The juror properly reported the incident to the presiding judge and ultimately invited the judge to respond directly to the sender. In an unprecedented and unique treatment of the situation, the judge texted the following message: "This is Judge Fahey. Do not send any more text messages about this case or there will be consequences." While the actions of the judge were certainly unconventional, they are no doubt an example of a swift and judicious management of an altogether unpleasant incident.
In October, the Sun Sentinel reported that a potential juror in the retrial of John Goodman was actually arrested for "indirect contempt of court" after an assistant for the defense overheard the potential juror, Travis Van Vliet, telling another potential juror that he had Googled the defendant and learned that the case was a retrial, implying that Goodman had already been convicted. At the arraignment of Van Vliet, the judge admonished the man for his conduct and said, "I only wanted to do this once…Now I have to do it a second time [because of juror misconduct]. And because of your behavior, I nearly had to start jury selection over for a third time…Your actions jeopardized the entire judicial process in this case." While Van Vliet and his parents stated that he did not mean any harm, they explained that Van Vliet was "curious…[and] confused by questions the defense asked and ones the prosecution challenged" and that Van Vliet actually "had hoped for a spot on the jury and didn't mean to go against the judge's orders."
In the same retrial of John Goodman, a sequestered juror was heckled by unknown individuals from outside the hotel room she was staying in. The hecklers stated things like, "Watch out or you'll go to jail like Van Vliet." Apparently, the comments caused the woman to be confused because she did not understand the reference the hecklers were making to Van Vliet, and her confusion caused her to believe that there had possibly been a previous trial–a disturbing inference as any potential jurors in the Goodman trial were barred from serving if they knew about the previous trial. As a result, Juror #10 was excused from service due to counsel fears that she had been improperly influenced.
These incidents show that juror curiosity and potentially influential outside information are dangerous problems that may not go away any time soon. One thing is for certain, if courts do not take steps to increase juror protection from outside influences, including protecting them from their own curiosity, there may be a lot more retrials in the future.