When Jurors Go Bad

The big news in Chicago this morning-- the big news in Chicago for the past six weeks, actually-- is the story of the push by former Gov. George Ryan's attorneys to seek a new trial for their client based upon jury misconduct during this corruption trial earlier this year. I have seen plenty of defense attorneys argue plenty of post-trial motions based upon jury problems, real or perceived. But I don't think I have ever seen the level of chaos that this surrounded this jury. The former governor, convicted of all 18 charges against him, has a better-than-average chance to get a new trial if even some of the allegations against jurors are true.

This may not happen before the federal, trial udge, who already is on record as saying she doesn't believe the juror misconduct was serious enough to force another marathon trial. But surely the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is in a prime position to send a signal that, at a minimum, when someone's liberty is on the line, deliberating jurors cannot look stuff up online and then openly use that knowledge to persuade others to vote their way. That's what happened inside the jury room during Ryan's trial, which ended in mid-April after six gruelling months of testimony.

Juror access to the Internet during a trial is a growing and obvious problem. Logging onto a computer at the end of the day, or in the morning, has become as routine as turning on the television. And relevant material-- about a trial, about the law, about a defendant, about anything else a juror may become curious about during a trial-- is essentially a click away. For some jurors, clearly, the temptation has become too much. When it comes to information, we live now in an instant-gratification, Googlized world. And it is causing huge headaches for those who have a stake in the criminal justice system.

In the just-completed trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, for example, one juror looked up online the definition of the word "aggravating"-- as in "aggravating" sentencing factors. In that case, since the defendant already had pleaded guilty, the federal judge declared that the juror's mistake was not so fundamental to the rest of the case that it warranted either dismissal of the juror or a new sentencing trial. In the Ryan case, the offending juror looked up a definition of "good faith" deliberations, apparentely trying to convince a "holdout" juror that she was not deliberating in good faith.

Since the holdout (and another juror) ultimately were dismissed from the panel and replaced (for unrelated reasons, which also cause concerns), U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer ruled initially no-harm, no-foul. But now Ryan's lawyers are back, demanding a new investigating by Pallmeyer into allegations that there was so much pressure put to bear on the holdout, and so many other jurors either lied in their jury questionnaire forms or otherwise didn't follow instructions, that the whole process needs to be redone. Do yourself a favor. Click on those links above and read the details of what went on inside that jury room. And then ask yourself if you would want those folks to sit in judgment upon you, or anyone in your family.

By  |  June 2, 2006; 9:00 AM ET
Previous: Exxon Mobil Should Pay Up and Soon | Next: Awake and Alert


Please email us to report offensive comments.

Andrew, the link to your Awake and Alert post is not working...

Posted by: | June 2, 2006 11:35 PM

Even before the Internet when it was rare to sequester a jury, there were newspapers, telephones, etc, whereby a juror might learn of matters not presented in evidence during the trial that might affect a juror's decision. But how can all this be readily learned? Is this an issue because jurors feel like celebrities after a jury's decision and wish to share the limelight? To what extent should the deliberations and activities of the jurors pre-trial and during the trial be investigated post-trial? Are juries expected to yield pure justice? Or are 12 (or 6) jurors (of the parties' peers?) capable of delivering a more fair verdict than a judge? How many defendants may have the financial wherewithal of Gov. Thompson to challenge the jurors? Does Lady Justice sometimes peek out from her blindfold?

Posted by: Shag from Brookline | June 3, 2006 06:15 AM

The broken link that anonymous noted yesterday at 11:35am is still (not) there. Neither the "continue" nor the "permalink" links work.

On the subject of juries, are there any examples of jurors doing research that you'd find acceptable? I'm a bit concerned here that this can be carried too far. As I understand it, part of the reason for having juries is that they can provide insights beyond those presented in a court - the idea of justice, and technical or scientific background that might prove important in understanding evidence that's presented.

While I certainly would want jurors to avoid any discussions or news directly related to the trial, there must be times when information not presented in a case is crucial to some jurors making up their minds. What are the limits of such information, as you see them, or should jurors live in a bubble during the course of a trial?

Posted by: Cujo359 | June 3, 2006 03:33 PM

Sorry, folks. The first link cited now is available only to folks who register for free with the Chicago Tribune's online site.

Posted by: Andrew Cohen | June 3, 2006 04:32 PM

Research by jurors is discouraged because it involves, essentially, the introduction into the trial process of evidence that is not vetted by the rules of procedure and rules of evidence, and which the other side has no opportunity to rebut, challenge, or explain. While jurors certainly bring to their deliberations their various life experiences, we choose, in part, to strike jurors based on their knowledge and biases. These we discover (it is hoped) during voir dire. Thus the choice of allowing a juror to remain on the panel is made on the basis of information known to the parties. If a juror gains knowledge concerning the issues to be tried after the fact from sources outside the courtroom, it tilts the playing field. An adversary system such as ours requires a neutral fact-finder making decisions based on the information presented by the parties to the litigation; research by jurors turns them from neutral fact-finders into investigators and advocates.

Posted by: HerbS | June 3, 2006 05:25 PM

Andrew, we mean that the "continue" link to your Awake and Alert article is broken. So we are not able to read your whole Awake column; click on "continue" and you'll see for yourself. Maybe alert the IT folks at Washington Post.

Posted by: | June 3, 2006 10:55 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company