Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Jurors Behaving Badly

Interesting article in the NY Times the other day about the increasing number of mistrials necessitated by jurors using the Internet to investigate cases on their own -- in violation of their instructions, of course. Even more interesting, though were the letters the Times received in response to the story. The bulk of the letters suggested that we just have to accept this new phenomenon, and some even suggested that it's a good thing that jurors are breaking out of the artificial straightjacket created by the rules of evidence and judicial control of the information that jurors are supposed to see.

Sorry, but the jurors who do this are behaving badly. I won't defend every one of the rules of evidence -- some of them are indeed rather artificial -- but most of them are there for a reason, and nothing could illustrate the reasons better than the thought of jurors doing bootleg Internet research.

The last thing we want is jurors deciding things based on what they read on the Internet. There's a lot of useful information on the Internet, but it's also filled with garbage. For example, as my faithful readers know, if you believe what you read on the Internet, you'd conclude that there is no law requiring Americans to pay income taxes. I regularly correspond with people who believe just that based on their Internet research. If jurors need to decide what the law requires, or whether a vaccine causes injury, or whether AIG had a contract with its employees to pay bonuses, do we really want them making the decision based on which side has more presence on the Internet? No, we don't.

Besides, the search for truth in a trial setting depends on the adversary system. Parties and their lawyers respond to what the other side presents. If jurors are surreptitiously trolling for information on the Internet, the parties can't respond because they don't know what jurors are seeing.

Yes, the trial system is somewhat artificial, but jurors having unrestricted access to any trash on the Internet is worse.

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