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Mass. Court Warns Jurors About Online Comments

Denise Lavoie, AP Legal Affairs Writer
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Karen Twomey Karen Twomey
Karen Twomey is a reporter for WBZ News Radio 1030 and has spent the...
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BOSTON (AP) — For decades, Massachusetts judges have told jurors to refrain from going on the Internet to do research about cases they are weighing, but now judges are being told they need to do more to stop jurors from posting information about cases on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites.

The state Appeals Court, in a move that follows a national trend, said judges must give jurors explicit warnings against using social media.

WBZ NewsRadio 1030’s Karen Twomey reports

The new instructions came in a recent ruling in a larceny case in which two jurors posted comments on Facebook, which then elicited sometimes derogatory responses from the jurors’ Facebook friends.

One juror, while jury selection was going on, posted: “had jury duty today and was selected for the jury …. Bleh! Stupid jury duty!” One of the responses to that posting was: “Throw the book at ‘em.”

Another juror also posted during jury selection: “Waiting to be selected for jury duty. I don’t feel impartial.” To that, someone responded: “Tell them ‘BOY HOWDIE, I KNOW THEM GUILTY ONES!”

The Appeals Court upheld the larceny verdicts, agreeing with a lower court judge that the online postings were general complaints about jury service and “silly nonspecific responses to those complaints” and did not amount to any outside influence on the jury.

The court said the judge — on the first day of the trial — had instructed jurors not to discuss the case with anyone and not to read anything about the case. The judge had also warned the jurors that if they went online to “Google” the case, it could result in a mistrial.

But the court said the trial judge’s warning to jurors apparently “were not enough” to stop jurors from alluding to their jury service on social media websites.

“Instructions not to talk or chat about the case should expressly go beyond prohibitions on research. Jurors should not research, describe, or discuss the case on- or off-line,” the court wrote. “Jurors must separate and insulate their jury service from their digital lives.”

The Massachusetts warning is not unusual.

Courts around the country have been grappling with how to stop jurors from posting information about their trials. At least a dozen states — including Connecticut, New York, Ohio, South Carolina and Wisconsin — have amended court rules or made new ones over the last five years to instruct jurors against using social media, said Greg Hurley, an analyst for the Center for Jury Studies at the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Va.

“It doesn’t surprise me,” Hurley said. “Certainly, I know people who post what they ate for breakfast. For a person who has that ingrained into them, for a person to post that they are bored on jury duty, that doesn’t surprise me.”

Massachusetts Jury Commissioner Pamela Wood said the jury in the larceny case was given a 1998 juror handbook. The handbook was updated in 2009 to warn jurors about not looking up information online or to post information about the case online.

Wood said that well before the May 2 Appeals Court ruling, her office had been planning to unveil a new poster — to be placed in the jury pool assembly room and the jury deliberation room — that shows an image of an iPhone and warns jurors against texting, emailing, blogging or posting information about their cases on social media websites.

“It has become so much a part of people’s day-to-day life that they don’t really think about it,” Wood said. “They are used to posting everything they think is newsworthy, but now this is a case when they have to stop and think … This is a case when I have to put down the phone and not do this.”

The defendant in the case, Clare Werner, was convicted of larceny for stealing more than $350,000 from Bridgewater State College, where she worked as a bookkeeper.

Werner’s trial lawyer, Brian Kelley, said he is considering appealing the ruling to the Supreme Judicial Court.

“I think the fact they took the time to issue a ruling where they are essentially telling Superior Court and District Court judges to instruct jurors better, but not give Miss Werner a new trial is perplexing,” Kelley said.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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