Juror’s tweets result in reversal of murder conviction

In the latest development in the evolving intersection of law and social media, the Arkansas Supreme Court reversed a murder conviction in part because a juror tweeted during the trial.

About six weeks ago, I wrote about an Illinois civil case against Metra where a juror tweeted some of her experiences.  Metra sought to use those tweets to overturn the judgement against it, but both the trial judge and the appellate court found that the tweets did indicate that either any outside influence had been exerted on the jury or that the juror had done anything improper.

In the new Arkansas case, the juror’s tweets also failed to reveal anything improper about the jurors conduct.  The tweets included “the coffee sucks” and “choices to be made, hearts to be broken.” The tweets that have been published seem vague enough to me that, in a less serious case, might be considered harmless error.  In fact, that is what the lower appellate court had found.

However, this was a capital murder case. Error that might be excusable in a civil case where only money is at stake become inexcusable in a criminal case, when someone’s freedom or life are on the line.

In addition, the jurors in this case were specifically instructed against using twitter during the trial.  So this juror disobeyed the Court’s instruction.

Finally, by “tweeting” and participating in social media, one is engaging in a conversation with others — and discussing the trial that one is hearing is an act which is forbidden during jury service.

We will continue to keep a close eye on these cases as they come along.

What do you think?

My thoughts on the Blagojevich sentencing

Blagojevich sentenced to 14 years

This is a horrible day for Rod Blagojevich and his family. And one that could have been avoided if he made different decisions along the way.

Obviously, not holding back legislation until after he received campaign contributions or trying to get something in return for making a Senate appointment go at the top of the list.

But, in terms of legal maneuvering once he was charged, he did himself a disservice. Many times over.

First of all, he did not listen to his attorneys. Blagojevich hired very qualified criminal defense attorneys in Cook County: Ed Genson, Sam Adam, Sam Adam, Jr. and Sheldon Sorofsky. However, Mr. Blagojevich did not listen to Ed Genson when Genson advised him to keep quiet and not speak to the media. I don’t know for a fact, but my guess is that the remaining attorneys told Rod to keep quiet too, but they were willing to go with the flow and ride the media train.

Genson withdrew from the case, and that was problem number two. Once Genson left the case, Blagojevich should have considered switching legal teams and hiring former federal prosecutors with experience in this type of case. And I know that Sam Adam Jr. did a great job to get one juror to vote “not guilty” causing the first hung jury.

But Blagojevich’s attorneys were not in their element in Federal court, and thats not a good thing. I suspect that they were also understaffed and unable to deal with the voluminous discovery with hundreds of hours of eavesdropped phone conversations. Maybe Blagojevich couldn’t afford one of those guys and their large blue chip law firm support staffs. But that is the type of staff that you need to deal with this type of case. And unlike other former government types, Blagojevich probably burned a lot of bridges so he didn’t get the sort of generous reduced rate help that his predecessor George Ryan received from Jim Thompson and Dan Webb.

Most importantly, Blagojevich should have entered into plea negotiations.

At the beginning of the process, he knew the following: that the evidence against him was strong, that the Feds have a 96% conviction rate, and that he was facing fairly inflexible federal sentencing guidelines if convicted.

I know this is Monday morning quarterbacking, but imagine if he played it out this way instead of what he actually did:

Submitted his resignation as governor immediately, “to deal with my pending criminal investigation;”

Kept his mouth shut — no Regis, no Apprentice, no Don and Roma, etc.;

Had his attorneys negotiate a plea.

Even better would have been to negotiate a plea immediately with his potential resignation as a bargaining chip.

My guess is if he had entered plea negotiations, he could have reduced his exposure to a sentence in the range of 5 1/2 to 8 years.

Of course, it is not easy for anyone to agree to a multi-year prison sentence. Let alone for someone who has never faced a day in jail.

But now he will have to think about that for every extra day he spends in prison that he didn’t have to. Today, at sentencing, he admitted that he committed crimes. So he doesn’t even get the satisfaction of claiming he was “railroaded.” Was the media circus and trial worth all those extra wasted years and missing his daughters growing up? Maybe as much as an extra 8 years? I don’t think so.

What do you think?

Jury Duty and Social Media

link: Cracking Down on Courtroom Networking

The other day I went to get an oil change. While waiting, i sat with two men who read their itablets, another played a game on his smartphone, while I was listening to a podcast and checking twitter and facebook on mine. I read how one friend was stuck in traffic, another was getting a hot dog and a third was getting an oil change (oh wait, that was me).

Today we walk around with devices that can quickly get all sorts of information. I remember a few years ago when I was in court and before a hearing i got into a disagreement with a police officer over whether a certain clinic on the west side was privately or publicly owned. I pulled out my smartphone and quickly resolved the dispute. That was the first of now many times I have reached for my phone to get a quick answer.

So it should be no surprise that jurors don’t think twice about reaching for their smartphones to resolve their unanswered questions, or to share their experience serving on a jury with their followers.

The problem is that when a juror gets information that was not entered into evidence, after it has been subject to cross-examination by opposing counsel and scrutinized by the judge, they may be looking at something that is misleading or prejudicial. For example, repairs made after the fact are not admissible in negligence cases because they can be used to imply that the defendant has impliedly admitted negligence by fixing the dangerous situation, and from a public policy standpoint this is bad because it discourages the repair from occurring until after the litigation is completed. As you can see, there are reasons for our rules of evidence.

I think that the courts should continue in their efforts to remind jurors of their responsibilities to remain fair and untainted from opinions or “outside evidence.” It is very tempting to tweet one’s experience as a juror (as it is for me as an attorney) but this is one experience where we must refrain until our duties have been discharged.

What do you think?