Internet use hurts integrity of justice


POSTED: Saturday, March 21, 2009

The ability to satisfy curiosity through the Internet threatens to damage the integrity of the court system in Hawaii and elsewhere. Judges and jurors need to take extra measures to assure that decisions are based solely on evidence admitted in court.

In the pre-Internet days, judges could instruct jurors to avoid watching television news and ask that spouses or friends clip out articles pertaining to the case before giving the day's newspaper to a juror. But making sure that a panel's decision has not been affected by outside influences is no longer so easy.

After a juror in a federal drug trial in Florida this month admitted to the judge that he had done online research on the case, the judge questioned other jurors and found that eight others had been doing the same thing. He had no choice but to declare a mistrial, wasting eight weeks of court duration.

A juror's temptation to perform a Google search of defendants, lawyers and presiding judges is strong. And jurors naturally are tempted to use Wikipedia or Google Maps to help explain evidence that might be admitted at a trial, say to look up information on a medical condition or determine the driving time between two places.

A simple admonition is no longer sufficient to prevent independent research. Judges need to encourage jurors to report on fellow panelists who they find are breaking the rule. Individual jurors who violate the rule should be immediately sent home so other jurors can adhere to the judge's instruction to confine facts to those admitted in a trial.