St. Louis prosecutor tweets about rape trial

A St. Louis Circuit Attorney got into hot water for tweeting about an ongoing rape trial, which had the potential for influencing the jury.  From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

A Missouri appeals court has expressed concern that St. Louis city’s top prosecutor posted case details on Twitter during the trial of a rape suspect, but has allowed the conviction to stand.

A three-judge panel of the Eastern District Missouri Court of Appeals rejected an appeal in the case of David Polk, despite the concerns over the tweets by St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce.

Polk was convicted at a June 2012 trial of forcible rape and sodomy in an attack on an 11-year-old girl 20 years earlier. DNA evidence linked him to the crime. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Joyce tweeted some details of the case during the trial.

The judges did not weigh in on whether Joyce’s comments before and during the trial were improper as Polk’s attorneys claimed. But the ruling expressed concern that use of tweets “immediately before and during trial greatly magnifies the risk that a jury will be tainted.”

Joyce issued a statement saying the ruling recognized that “the basic facts underlying the tweets are part of the public record.” She said her last five tweets came after jurors had been warned away from news and social media.

“I am confident that continued use of social media by the Circuit Attorney’s Office will balance the competing rights of all citizens,” she wrote.

The Missouri Public Defender’s office called the tweets “prosecutorial misconduct.”

Joyce is a frequent user of Twitter. St. Louis’ top public defender, Mary Fox, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that her office had complained about Joyce’s tweets in other court motions.

“If the behavior is not going to stop, then perhaps the next step is a bar complaint  either by an attorney or by a defendant,” Fox said.

Both the Illinois and Missouri Rules of Professional Conduct state that “a lawyer who is participating or has participated in the investigation or litigation of a matter shall not make an extrajudicial statement that the lawyer knows or reasonably should know will be disseminated by means of public communication and will have a substantial likelihood of materially prejudicing an adjudicative proceeding in the matter.”  This is one reason (client confidentiality is another) that I would never think of tweeting my thoughts about a case that I was in the midst of trying.

This Appellate decision only concerned whether the defendant was entitled to a new trial as a result of the tweets.  We will be on the lookout to see whether Joyce’s actions result in charges for violating the ethics rules.

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