Facebook in Courtroom

June 22, 2011 § Leave a comment

You are serving on a jury in a weighty case — drug trafficking, perhaps, or rape. After many slow procedural hours, the to-and-fro of defence and prosecution, his word against hers, the evidence has stacked up equally. Your fellow jurors are divided and unbudgeable. Blimey, you could be trapped in this dusty room drinking Styrofoam coffee, your real life suspended, for days. Moreover, what preys on your mind is the stuff you are forbidden to know. That guy, gelled and scrubbed in his Burton’s best, does he have form?
Back home, your computer blinks. The judge has warned gravely about considering only the evidence set before you in court. But if you just slip a name into Google, His Honour will never know. Besides what if you acquit that plausible man only to hear later of a chain of incrementally worse offences leading up to this. Don’t you owe it to the victim, to justice itself, to work a little harder? Search or resist: what would you do?
The stupidity of juror Joanne Fraill, jailed for contacting on Facebook a defendant Jamie Sewart and derailing a £6 million drug trial, has been generally enjoyed. Her grammar, dire spelling and low-life appearance, her pathetic neediness in seeking approval, reward even, from a suspected drug-gang moll, her howling tears at her punitive eight-month jail sentence. And most of all her head-slapping dumbness in not foreseeing the hazard of breaking the law on a public forum.
The first rule of jury duty is don’t talk about jury duty. Although what Fraill did in the context of our compulsive social-networking, where you can tweet the Dalai Lama and get a reply, is, as Jon Snow remarked, “organically normal”. Just an idle search on Twitter reveals contempt of court in abundance. “I cant even lie they picked the wrong guy for jury service. If one of them is Mandem [slang for black] its a straight not guilty evn if they r,” (sic) says one. Another man looks forward to his wife returning from court that evening for a juicy chat about her jury’s latest deliberations. Names, photos, locations: all there. Go get them, Lord Judge.
Academic studies show that the vast majority of jurors see their service in a trial as a grave duty, even a privilege, since it is a rare acknowledgment of the State’s belief in them as honourable and rational beings. I long for the day I will be called up: you have to wait four years for a general election to get that kind of citizenship kick.
Reading Fraill’s remarks, though, sure takes the noble shine off the concept of being tried by your peers. Imagine having your future decided by a panel of the bored and disengaged: “All that note taking was just killing time,” she told Sewart. “Drew more than I wrote.” And remember when once a jury was popularly portrayed as a linchpin in tense courtroom dramas, now it’s a panel on a TV show employing raucous buzzers to dispense with Britney soundalikes and dog acts.
But beyond Fraill’s most foolish crime of chatting online is the more understandable one of scouring the internet for information on defendants. Surveys suggest that 5 per cent of jurors do this, a figure that trebles in the most high-profile cases.
I’d wager it is far higher still. Failure to restrain our human curiosity is the essence of mythology and scripture: from Adam’s temptation to Pandora’s box and that original rubbernecker, Lot’s wife. Knowledge is our undoing but also our liberator.
Indeed googling jurors are simply behaving as they expect to in the rest of their lives. Once the consumer’s mantra was “That’ll do nicely”; now it is “Go compare”. To blithely sign your child up to the nearest school is now a dereliction of duty: you must scour league table and Ofsted reports. Buying anything from a fridge to a holiday begins with a dreary online price comparison or scrolling through recommendations on TripAdvisor, however partisan and planted by hotel owners they might be. Armed with a range of opinion and amorphous mass of data we believe our internal consumer jury can cogitate and decide.
When all human knowledge is available instantly, who can resist consulting it? Nora Ephron wrote that “senior moments” have been replaced by “Google moments”, the internet shoring up the forgetful ageing brain. Every time I see a doctor, I offer, apologetically, my own online diagnosis. A friend was forbidden from googling his strain of cancer because the myriad of findings would confuse and scare him. Yet, of course he did. I am for ever interviewing celebrities who say they battle with the daily compulsion to google themselves: sanity v vanity.
What is it that makes me google people I’ve met at parties or I know will be guests at the same dinner? I don’t go as far as a fellow hack who looks up addresses of her children’s friends on the class list then puts them into Google Earth to have a shufty at their houses, crossreferencing with local estate agents to check their worth. But I see why she does.
Glistening, just a few clicks away, is a world of information, some forbidden, frightening and taboo. Some men convicted of viewing child pornography say that they felt no paedophiliac urges until they made their first curious search and were hooked. Certainly fewer people routinely looked at pornography before the internet.
Meanwhile, the adoption process has been shaken by the ease with which reunions that once took years to arrange are secured by a quick trawl of Facebook. Where once children could be protected from manipulative and toxic biological parents, they can now be secretly seduced away online. How could you resist?

In a world of limitless knowledge, where private and public are forever blurred, rules must be revised. We could abandon jury trials or lock jurors away for the duration. Or maybe we should accept that they cannot exist in a bubble, then advise them how best to evaluate all potential sources. Adam succumbed to the apple of knowledge; we can’t resist the AppleMac.

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