Jurors’ cell phones present new challenge

In a culture where shorthand communication such as LOL — laugh out loud — is as common in conversations as “Hello,” Georgia judges are finding that cell phones and online social networking sites could pose problems in the courtroom.

Each of the Macon Judicial Circuit’s five Superior Court judges, for example, has either considered or given new, more specific instructions to jurors about their use of cell phones in the courtroom.

With the menagerie of cell phone applications and capabilities these days, all sorts of information is at jurors’ fingertips, and judges don’t want any of it to taint or impede court cases.

“Imagine a juror Googling the defendant’s name,” Chief Judge Martha Christian said. “It’s not a part of the evidence that can be considered.”

Christian said she changed the instructions she gives jurors about mobile devices earlier this year after hearing about jurors in other areas texting and using Internet-capable cell phones to look up information during trials.

Any information jurors find that’s not presented in the courtroom during a trial can’t be considered in deliberations.

In response to concerns about Internet-capable cell phone use in courtrooms, a committee of the Council of Superior Court Judges is in the process of drafting a new, uniform instruction to jurors about mobile devices, said Mel Westmoreland, president of the council and a Fulton County Superior Court judge.

Judges already have been instructing jurors for 25 years not to read news reports about their cases and not to try and perform their own investigations, Westmoreland said.

But with society changing, judges’ instructions to juries need to evolve, he said.

“It’s the judges growing with societal norms,” Westmoreland said.

While Macon Judicial Circuit judges say they haven’t had any instances of jurors using Internet-capable cell phones in court, Westmoreland said judges in other parts of the state have had problems.

In particular, a recent case in Fulton County ended in a mistrial because of a juror’s improper use of an electronic device during the trial, said David Barrett, also a Superior Court judge and a member of the council’s committee that’s drafting the new instructions for judges.

Other judges have had instances of jurors talking on cell phones, but the situations didn’t rise to the level of impacting a trial, he said.

“It’s a statewide concern,” Westmoreland said.

Typically, jurors understand the importance and seriousness of their roles, Westmoreland said.

Christian said because mobile devices have become a part of everyday life, many jurors don’t know that they shouldn’t research the location of a crime or search for the definition of a legal term on the Internet.

“It’s human nature,” she said.

If a juror is caught using a cell phone or posting information about the trial on a social networking site during a trial, the juror can be held in contempt of court. The juror also could be incarcerated or fined, Christian said.

The impact of jurors violating a judge’s instructions about cell phones and the Internet could result in a mistrial. The verdict also can be reversed if the court finds out about the violation after a verdict is announced, Christian said.

Macon Judicial Circuit judges S. Phillip Brown, Ed Ennis and Tripp Self said they tell jurors not to use cell phones or the Internet to find out about the case. Judge Lamar Sizemore said he has presided over just a few trials this year and hasn’t had much of an opportunity to issue the instruction. He said he’ll consider modifying his jury instructions when he does have a trial.

Self said he asks jurors to leave their cell phones at home. Jurors who do bring the phones to court aren’t allowed to use them unless a bailiff listens in on their conversations.

To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398.