Legal community worried about influence of internet on juries in criminal trials

Second major case collapses as juror admits researching witness

Trial is halted as jury forewoman admits to researching a witness. Photograph:  Collins Courts

Trial is halted as jury forewoman admits to researching a witness. Photograph: Collins Courts

 

There are increasing concerns within the legal community about the influence of the internet on juries in criminal trials as a second major case in a month collapsed because a juror was conducting independent research.

Yesterday the trial of Sandra Higgins (36) of Drumgola Wood in Cavan town was halted after a juror admitted to researching one of the State’s witnesses online. Ms Higgins is accused of causing serious harm to a 10-month-old child she was babysitting.

Judge Martin Nolan warned jurors at the start of the trial not to conduct any of their own research. However, a week into the trial one of the jurors told the judge that the forewoman had looked up a medical witness in the case.

Before dismissing the jury, a visibly angry Judge Nolan told the forewoman, “You disobeyed my instruction.” The judge said the defendant was entitled to a fair trial and “the people of Ireland are entitled to have trials conducted fairly”.

In April the month-long trial of a man accused of kidnapping a couple and their 10-week-old child collapsed at the closing stages when a juror complained that one of them was bringing in outside information.

“They’re using that information to make their decision. That is so wrong,” read a note from a concerned juror which was handed to the court.

Smart phones

Jurors researching cases themselves are not a new phenomenon. However, the advent of smart phones and mobile internet access has increased the amount of trials which are collapsing because of outside information getting to the jury.

“The smart phone does increase the risks,” barrister Tony McGillicuddy said. “It means that if people have a curiosity, it’s a very hard temptation to avoid. Barristers would be worried that if you are defending a client who might be notorious, the jurors would Google them and see he was in the Sunday World four weeks in a row.

“But what can you do about it, short of taking people’s phones off them, which nobody wants to do because you’d never get people to do jury service?”

Judges are increasingly giving what are known as “Google warnings” to jurors at the start of trials, reminding them that they must decide the case only on the evidence in court.

One solicitor said that such warnings were like a “wet paint: do not touch” sign.

“If a judge alerts them not to Google, you’re going to have someone who feels the need to do exactly that,” he said.

Mr McGillicuddy said that may be true but the warnings also encouraged jurors to police each other’s actions, as happened in the Higgins case.

“The fact that this juror came into court today and said, ‘look, one of our number hasn’t complied with that direction’; maybe that shows that jurors do comply with their directions.”