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Custody for juror internet misuse 'virtually inevitable'

16 June 2011

A juror and a defendant were both in contempt of court for exchanging information about a trial via Facebook, the Lord Chief Justice has found in the latest case of jury tampering by social media.

Misuse of the internet by a juror was “always a most serious irregularity and contempt”, Lord Judge said as he passed sentence, before adding that custody for such breaches was “virtually inevitable”.

Joanne Fraill was sitting in the jury hearing the case against six defendants, including Jamie Stewart, accused of supplying dangerous drugs and attempting to corrupt police officers.

Stewart was acquitted of the three charges against her after a two-month trial but the jury still had to return a verdict in respect of her partner, Gary Knox, when she was contacted by Fraill via Facebook using an assumed name.

The two started a conversation, with Stewart asking for information and Fraill volunteering comments about the trial.

Finding them both in breach of contempt rules, Lord Judge said it was a matter of “elementary justice” that a verdict should be reached only on the basis of material used in evidence at trial, excluding information otherwise accessible to the jury, such as information available on the internet.

The senior judge also made specific comments on the impact of social media on the criminal justice system.

Commenting in general terms about judges’ awareness of modern technologies, he said: “Judges, no less than any else, are well aware of and use modern technology in the course of their work. The internet is a modern means of communication. Modern technology, and means of communication, are advancing at an ever-increasing speed. We are aware that reference to the internet is inculcated as a matter of habit into many members of the community, and no doubt that habit will grow.”

But, he continued with reference specifically to criminal justice: “If jurors make their own inquiries into aspects of the trials with which they are concerned, the jury system as we know it, so precious to the administration of criminal justice in this country, will be seriously undermined, and, what is more, the public confidence on which it depends will be shaken.”

Lord Judge said the jury’s deliberations, and ultimately their verdict, “must be based – and exclusively based – on the evidence given in court, a principle which applies as much to communication with the internet as it does to discussions by members of the jury with individuals in and around, and sometimes outside the precincts of the court. The revolution in methods of communication cannot change these essential principles.

He continued: “The problem therefore is not the internet: the potential problems arise from the activities of jurors who disregard the long-established principles which underpin the right of every citizen to a fair trial.

“Information provided by the internet (or any other modern method of communication) is not evidence. Even assuming the accuracy and completeness of this information (which, in reality, would be unwise) its use by a juror exposes him to the risk of being influenced, even unconsciously, by whatever emerges from the internet. This offends our long-held belief that justice requires that both sides in a criminal trial should know and be able to address or answer any material (particularly material which appears adverse to them) which may influence the verdict.”

Sentencing Fraill to eight months’ custody, the Lord Chief Justice said significant public resources were wasted as a result of her action and that her conduct was both a breach of her oath as a juror and of the judge’s orders not to use the internet during the trial.

Sewart was given a two months’ sentence suspended for two years.

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