Home > Media > Jurors, Google and the risk of prejudice

Jurors, Google and the risk of prejudice

September 29, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Writing in the Guardian, Afua Hirsch discusses the dangers of jurors searching online for details about a trial. In particular, she worries that detail a defendant posts on Facebook could taint a juror’s view and potentially prejudice a trial. Jurors can encounter this information not just by searching for it. In high-profile cases, the mainstream media often digs up and publishes old social network posts made by a suspect. While judges give directions to a jury not to look for information, Hirsch concludes ‘warnings from judges are just not cutting it.’

On this point, I think Hirsch is right. Earlier this year, the Ministry of Justice published the results of a study, Are Juries Fair? The report, based on a survey of 62 cases and 668 jurors, found that in high-profile cases 12% of jurors looked online for information about their case. 26% of jurors in high-profile cases said they saw information about their case online (even though they had not searched for it). This is just one study based on a sample of cases and you may wonder whether the respondents in the survey were completely frank about their searching habits.

While jurors are told to ignore information obtained outside the court room, it is not clear how effective those warnings are. Even if a juror tries to follow this instruction, I find it hard to believe a juror can simply put aside information acquired on a person’s past or character. All this, however, stands in contrast to the faith in the jury so frequently expressed by the judiciary. The trouble is, the problem does not come with an obvious solution, save for a hope that clearer and more specific warnings by judges will be effective.

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