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Friday, Sep 21, 2018
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With information a click away, impartial juries in jeopardy

TAMPA — In every trial, jurors are told the same thing — do not talk to anyone and don’t read, watch or listen to any media reports or other information related to the case.

But sometimes — probably more often than anyone realizes, experts say — jurors just can’t help themselves. And when that happens, problems arise; trials can be upended and verdicts threatened.

Jurors who create the problems can face troubles of their own — anything from reprimands to fines to jail time.

Experts say the problem is growing because of the ubiquity of the Internet and smart phones.

In the past, notes Greg Hurley of the National Center for State Courts, people who wanted to research a crime scene, for example, would have to get in the car and drive around looking for it.

Now, “anybody can anonymously hop online” and get information in seconds. “It’s easier for people to do it anonymously and quietly,” he said. “That’s why it’s a bigger problem.”

“It’s human nature to be curious,” said Chief Judge Ronald Ficarotta. “Everyone has a phone. Most people have smart phones and can look up anything.”

A former member of the jury pool for the last Dontae Morris trial is the latest to find herself in hot water.

During jury selection for Morris’ third murder trial in July, Circuit Judge William Fuente addressed hundreds of potential jurors and gave them the standard line: Do not read, post, listen to, watch or talk about the case.

For good measure, so there wouldn’t be any confusion, he gave them a written order.

The next day, one juror, when asked, told Fuente she had “read an article,” according to an order Fuente issued in August. She said she was “curious” about Morris.

Now Alisia C. Carnes, the Tampa woman who was not ultimately picked to serve on the jury, has been ordered to appear before Fuente next month to try to explain why she should not be found in contempt and possibly fined or jailed for violating the order.

Carnes could not be reached for this story.

Morris was ultimately convicted of murdering Derek Anderson and given his third death sentence. It was his third murder trial; he still faces a fourth. He was previously given a life sentence for murdering Rodney Jones and death sentences for murdering police officers Jeffrey Kocab and David Curtis.

Trying to find juries to fairly judge Morris in Tampa has posed a problem for the courts because of the notoriety he has received from the police murders. Three years ago, jury selection derailed when potential jurors violated Fuente’s orders and talked to each other about the case.

So Fuente bused in jurors from Orlando for Morris’ first two trials. In July, he successfully seated a jury from Hillsborough County in spite of the issue with Carnes.

Carnes is not the only juror to face the wrath of the courts.

A former juror in the Tampa federal drug trial of reggae artist Buju Banton is scheduled to go on trial herself in October on contempt charges after giving an interview to a South Florida newspaper saying she went online to research the singer and a legal issue during the trial.

When the juror, Terri Wright, was called to court afterward, she insisted her research was done only after the trial.

Attorneys for Banton, whose real name is Mark Myrie, appealed his convictions partly based on what they said was juror misconduct. Ultimately, Banton reached a settlement with prosecutors, who dropped a weapons charge. He is scheduled to be released from federal prison on a drug conspiracy charge in 2019.

In June, a judge in Pinellas County sentenced a former juror in a murder case to four months in jail, which the judge suspended, and 200 hours of community service and a $500 fine, according to news reports.

The juror, Ronald Aronovitz, contributed to a mistrial for accused killer Ronnie Betts after telling other jurors during deliberations he had researched the case.

In 2009, a seven-week federal drug trial in South Florida derailed when the judge learned eight jurors had done independent Internet research in spite of his orders.

Experts say no one keeps statistics on how often this happens.

“I do, anecdotally, see it’s growing,” said Thaddeus Hoffmeister, law professor at the University of Dayton who studies juries. “It’s more difficult to keep juries isolated from this kind of information.”

In 2011, the National Center for State Courts conducted a study of the effects of new media on juries, posing the question: “If judges are no longer the gatekeepers for the flow of information into a courtroom, and if jurors no longer accept the legitimacy of restrictions on what is relevant to fact finding, can the American adversarial system continue to deliver fairness?”

The study surveyed jurors in a sampling of trials in seven states, including Florida. The overwhelming majority of prospective jurors in the cases had access to the Internet, with 89 percent using computers and 55 percent having smart phones. Also, 87 percent had personal email accounts and 64 percent had social media accounts.

A large percentage of the jurors said they would have liked to have used the Internet to research various aspects of the cases, according to the report. For example, 44 percent wanted to look up legal terms and 26 percent wanted more information about the parties involved.

Although some jurors admitted engaging in misconduct, it was only the “old-fashioned” kind, the report says, such as talking to each other about the case before deliberations.

Hoffmeister said he doesn’t think bringing the hammer down on jurors who do their own research is the best way to handle the issue.

He said contempt charges “should be the last resort because without jurors, our system doesn’t work.”

“We need them,” Hoffmeister said. “People aren’t there for the money... I think punishment should be the last option. We should focus more on education.”

Hoffmeister said it’s good that Carnes - the Morris jury candidate - told the judge what she had done. That should be encouraged, he said.

Defense lawyer Byron Hileman said he doesn’t have any opinion about what Fuente should do about Carnes. “She did at least admit being exposed” to information, he said. “I think that’s admirable. I give her credit for that... The judge is going to have to do what he thinks is right here.”

Hoffmeister said judges should not only order jurors not to do research but should tell them why.

Judges should tell jurors, he said, that if they were on trial, they’d want their case decided on information that had been vetted in the courtroom. They would want the ability to cross-examine witnesses and have any evidence screened.

“Once you go outside a courtroom, no one knows what you’re going to look at,” he said. For example, jurors in a case in Rhode Island looked up the law regarding manslaughter. The problem is they looked up the wrong law.

Hurley agreed education is key. He said judges also need to continually repeat their instructions. The fact Fuente told the Morris jurors verbally and then provided a written order early in the jury selection process, Hurley said, shows a “well-run system.” But he added, as the Carnes situation shows, “Even with that, it’s going to happen sometimes.”

Ficarotta said local judges go to great lengths to explain to jurors the importance of avoiding exposure to information from outside the courtroom.

“It’s obviously still bedeviling,” he said. “Jurors are still doing it.”

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Twitter: @ElaineTBO

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