Jurors and the internet
I have been having a rather jam-packed week, what with Caligula and the trolls. But I dont want to forget a case that made the news a couple of days ago -- the one about the two month prison sentence given to a juror who researched the case he was hearing at home in the evening on the internet.
Now I dont want to comment on the rights and wrong of this case (brief newspaper reports never give you enough information to decide what you think about the fairness, or otherwise, of the sentence). But as soon as I heard about it, it reminded me of a conversation I had had on a train a few months ago.
The man opposite me happened to be a judge, and we fell to talking about the nature and the problems of jury trial. At one point in the conversation, I said that I reckoned -- that if I were a juror (and I never have been) -- I really could see myself doing a bit of googling in the evening. I would know that I shouldn't, and I wouldn't tell my fellow jurors, and I would feel rather guilty and shifty about it (and get paranoid that the jusge would haul my laptop in for examination), and all the rest. But I just knew in my bones that after a curious day in court, with nothing to think about but the oddities of the case (and/or all the work of my own that wasnt getting done), and after have a bottle of Pinot Grigio over supper, I probably wouldn't be able to resist the temptation of a quick internet trawl.
He came down on me like a ton of bricks -- as, I know, was absolutely right and proper. That would be contempt, it would overturn some of the fundamental principles of British justice, it could land me in prison, etc etc.
And indeed that is exactly what happened to my namesake (the man sent down for two months was also called Beard -- no relation so far as I am aware).
But I still cant help wondering if we have to think a bit more radically about jury behaviour in "the internet age".
In the old days, it was easy enough to stop jurors accessing information that wasn't presented in court. A trip to the local library to go through back issues of newspapers would not only have probably been fruitless, it would have represented a determined (and public) search for illicit information, that a quick Google trawl after supper does not. I cant ever imagine having been tempted to do it.
But now it is just so easy to access the background, at the prompt of a single momemt of curiosity. And the more curious the juror is (and don't we want curious jurors?), the more likely in practice s/he is to undertake a bit of private investigation, no matter what the judge says (lets be honest! I really dont think that I am much out of line with most people's behaviour here).
The danger of sticking to the present position, as laid out by my judicial friend, seems to me to be that "extra-information gathering" on the part of the jurors simply goes underground. Only the very foolish will let on they have done it, but at least half of those twelve good (wo)men and true will have found out things that they will be bringing to the jury table -- but noone will know what they are, or whether they are even correct. Many jurors, in other words, will be influenced by a penumbra of information and misinformation that they wont possible to allowed to fess up to -- which seems somehow a lot worse than going to the information in the first place.
Dont we need to find a way of managing jurors' "natural" 21st century behaviour, and of having a bit of transparency here, rather than simply turning a blind eye to what must be going on (and which a few deterrent jail sentences isnt likely to stop). Shouldn't we perhaps encourage them to say what other information they are bringingto the table, and allow it to be challenged?
Or, if we really feel that the jury should access no external information at all, then we have to do what sometimes happens in the States, they have to be sequestred.
(I realise, of course, that -- after this post -- if I were ever to be called for jury service, I would be an obvious target of the judge's strictest attention. So let me promise now to the forces of the law that if I am ever to serve, I promise, whatever my worst instincts confessed here, that I wont break the rules: no Pinot Grigio or laptops out in the evening.)