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Thursday, August 30, 2012

Federal Courts Address Wave of Online Jurors

This past week, the new model jury instructions about online research and social media communication by jurors were released. You can read the new instructions here. While they are quite explicit and forceful, they are weak on an important element. Research into the effectiveness of limiting jury instructions has shown that such instructions can only work if jurors are given a rational (but not condescending) explanation for why the instructions are in place. This is why instructions to disregard evidence of a lie detector test (the science is just not very reliable yet) tend to be heeded, while instructions to disregard evidence from an inappropriate search (Well, you see, we have this thing called the 4th Amendment...) tend not to be.

Other courts have fashioned instructions regarding online activity by jurors well before the Federal Judiciary got in the game and some of these earlier instructions are frankly just better, particularly with respect to explaining why information obtained from outside sources is inappropriate to use. I particularly like the combination of patient explanation and forceful admonition embedded in the New Jersey model instructions. You can find these here.

While the problem of online activity has gotten more serious and more prevalent in the past few years, mostly due to the proliferation of high speed internet access and smart phone usage in the population, the issues remain very much as they were when this problem first reared its ugly digital head. I wrote a somewhat speculative post about this topic back in 2009 and the themes I covered still resonate today.

Take a look.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Remedy for the Googling juror? Just ask!

Jurors swarm the net

Recent entry for the smallest surprise of the year award: jurors are online.

Everyone is online. So, of course, people summoned for jury duty are, too. Jury duty can be very tedious. There is a lot of sitting around waiting for things to happen. The local sports page can keep you occupied for only so long. So, whip out your iPhone or Blackberry and see what's what. Google the defendant. Google the lawyer. Google the judge! Post a tweet (Most juror posts run along the lines of "I'm stuck on jury duty and boy am I bored.").

The problem has become so prevalent that there was a front page story about it in today's New York Times. So, what are we going to do about it?

Anyone who understands psychology at all knows that the solution is NOT to take away juror's toys and slap their hands with rulers if they disobey. We know from decades of research about judicial instructions (particularly the limiting kind) that judicial admonitions without proper reasoning tends to incite "reactance" on the part of jurors. That is, when jurors' freedom to act is taken away by the court, those jurors tend to rebel and engage in the prohibited behavior more than had they not been warned in the first place. So, the key is to accompany whatever solution is chosen with careful, logical and respectful explanations to the jurors.

With these considerations in mind, there seem to be fairly straightforward solutions to the two main types of juror internet activity that concern lawyers and judges.

Juror Tweeting and Blogging

There is nothing wrong with a juror wanting to chronicle her experience on jury duty. The problem is when she posts her experiences while the trial is ongoing. Outgoing messages don't pose too great a risk of contaminating the trial, unless one is concerned that the desire to post something sensational will cause the juror to alter her behavior in the jury room. The bigger problem is the possibility that such posts will generate online responses, providing the juror with extra-legal contact with facts and opinions not in evidence. Another emerging problem is the ability of an attorney to read the posts of jurors in her own cases during the trial.

General pre-trial jury instructions and those ever-entertaining "What is a juror?" videos should be edited to make it clear to those called for jury duty that they are not permitted to post information about their experiences online until after their service has ended. These instructions should make it clear that this prohibition is consistent with the one against discussing a case with others. My educated guess is that most juror bloggers do not realize that their behavior is inappropriate. Very few people need to blog so badly that they will do so after being told by a bailiff not to. These instructions should also make it clear that jurors are, of course, permitted to write whatever they choose about their experiences after their jury service is over.

Online research by serving jurors

Six hundred years ago this would not have been a problem (not just because there were no computers). During the early period of the Anglo-American jury system, jurors were selected from the locality of an alleged crime or dispute precisely so that they could come to court with local knowledge about the events in dispute. If the jurors did not feel that they understood the case well enough, they were expected to investigate it on their own! They were to ask other villagers about what they saw or heard. There were rarely witnesses at trial, so the jurors had to be "self-informing."

Well, we have now almost come full circle. We live in a world full of people skeptical of the motives of everyone involved in the law. We don't trust the parties. We don't trust the lawyers. We don't even trust the judges to be impartial anymore. Given the instant availability of information online, it is no wonder that jurors are tempted to "fact check" their cases on Google. In a recent Florida case that resulted in a mistrial, the judge discovered that a juror had conducted unauthorized online research. He then voir dired the rest of the jurors to find out who had been exposed to what this juror had found out. To the judge's amazement and horror, he discovered that eight other jurors had also conducted research online. He had no choice but to declare a mistrial.

What should we do? Well, first of all, every single judge should pre-instruct every single jury not to conduct online research. Such an instruction must be accompanied by a well-crafted explanation of why such a rule is necessary. Second, lawyers should do their homework. If the attorneys in a case cross all their t's and dot all their i's, they can substantially reduce the temptation for jurors to look elsewhere for answers. Do some pre-trial research. Find out what is likely to matter to jurors. Find out what is likely to confuse them. Give them the answers they need.

This brings me to a procedural "innovation" that I think can mitigate the temptation for jurors to conduct unauthorized online research. More and more jurisdictions allow jurors to ask questions of witnesses during trial. Judges should not grudgingly accept this intrusion into their total control of the courtroom. Rather, judges should welcome this as an opportunity to satisfy the curiosities of jurors within the confines of the courtroom. Better to let the parties address jurors' questions during the trial than risk those jurors searching for answers elsewhere.

So, at the same time that the judge tells the jurors not to consult any outside sources regarding the trial, she should encourage them to bring any outstanding questions to her attention. The message should be "We are here to help you make the best-informed decision possible. We'll get you the answers you need."

I think that jurors who hear that message will be more likely to stay off google during trial. Afterwards.... well, that's another topic for another day.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Will Wonders Never Cease?

Jury Consulting in Criminal Cases

Traditionally, only a select few criminal defendants have employed jury consultants. Those who have typically fall into three distinct categories.

1) Really rich people and celebrities (who are usually really rich). These folks can afford to hire the most expensive lawyers and also pay for a variety of trial support services. If ever you needed proof that jury consulting is valuable, pay close attention to the fact that every criminal defendant who can pay for it does pay for it.

2) Accused murderers facing the death penalty. Because judges receognize that the stakes are very high in capital cases, as well as the particular stress on jury selection created by the death qualification process, public funds are most likely to be awarded for jury consulting services in these cases. The presumption is that the jury consultant will be used exclusively for jury selection (now that change of venue motions have become essentially hopeless).

3) White collar criminal defendants. OK. This is really a subset of the really rich people, but the issues are different enough to warrant its own category. Unlike the washed-up actor who strangles his girlfriend, the corporate accountant accused of cooking the books is facing a trial that feels somewhat more like a civil trial. The case revolves around money and common business practices. The victims are often also rich and generally no violence was involved. Defendants in these cases tend to employ jury consultants for a variety of services, from thematic development to witness prep to pretrial jury research to jury selection.

What about the Little Guy?

But what about the people who could use our help the most? What about the indigent criminal defendant with an overworked, underpaid and inexperienced and/or jaded public defender? Do these folks use jury consulting services? Well, the answer used to be a resounding "no" but the landscape is changing.

Despite the wording of the Massachusetts statute regarding the allocation of funds for trial support services, which authorizes funding whenever a similarly situated non-indigent defendant would be willing to pay for the service, the Massachusetts courts have been loathe to even consider paying for jury consulting services. Part of this reluctance stems from the way in which such funds are allocated in Massachusetts. Most public defenders are actually "bar advocates," private attorneys who sign up to get assigned cases involving indigent criminal defendants. The state agency that oversees this process, the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) has a budget, but no authority to spend any of it on trial services. Each attorney must petition the court for the authorization to hire a psychologist, investigator or expert witness. Given the very modest budget for CPCS, combined with the fact that no judge knows how other judges are spending the money, the judiciary as a whole tends to be very stingy for all but obviously necessary expenses.

As I reported in this blog a few years ago, the attorneys for Neil Entwistle, whose case received non-stop pretrial publicity for months leading up to trial, petitioned the court for $1,000 for help from a jury consultant in crafting voir dire questions. The judge denied the request without argument or comment. The default position is clearly, "No dice!"

The good news is that the dam is starting to crack. Over the past few years, attorneys have successfully petitioned the court for small sums of money to retain my services. I lowered my hourly rate very dramatically in order to increase the likelihood that such petitions might have a chance. Recently, I accepted a position with TrialGraphix, a large, national litigation consulting firm. I could no longer work the CPCS cases for peanuts. While management at TrialGraphix was willing to let me work these criminal cases at a substantial discount, a court was going to have to authorize real money to pay for my services.

Recently, I was approached by an attorney concerning a criminal matter for an indigent defendant. I explained that he would have to submit his motion with my new hourly rate. In addition, the case is very complicated and the attorney needed help with several jury-related matters. So, he was going to have to ask for a pretty hefty sum -- several times more than the court had ever awarded me before. We held our breath -- and the judge said "OK."

Perhaps the judiciary is finally becoming enlightened with respect to the difficulties confronted by those facing jury trials for serious criminal charges. Maybe the judge wanted to cover himself against a possible appeal. Maybe I have now developed enough of a track record that judges take these motions seriously. Whatever the reason, I can now say to anyone representing an indigent criminal defendant in Massachusetts, "Don't assume that you can't hire a jury consultant to help you." The door has been opened; it's time to walk through it.

What the Future May Hold

I am less familiar with how funds are allocated for jury consulting services in other states. I know that most states have real public defender offices, with discretionary (although small) budgets. In such a system, court approval is not required to pay for support services. Massachusetts is moving in this direction, which might provide further momentum for these efforts.

I have worked for the Federal Public Defenders Office in Boston and they only require internal authorization to pay for my services. I bill them just like a regular law firm. I can only hope that the CPCS system will evolve into something closer to this model.

A criminal defense attorney whose motion for funds for jury consulting services has been denied need not despair. I have written in this blog many times about the Pro Bono Initiative of the American Society of Trial Consultants (ASTC). I remain the Chair of our Pro Bono Committee and we are more committed than ever to making jury consulting services available to those representing clients of limited means.

Earlier this month, I connected a non-profit legal aid organization in Chicago with a ASTC member consultant to help with thematic development and jury selection. When it was determined that they needed help with graphics and video editing, we found another ASTC member to help with that. So, if you need help, please don't hesitate to contact me or visit the Pro Bono Committee's homepage.