By Jay Perry
In a case that is emblematic of the potential problems with digital communication during jury trials, the Tennessee Supreme Court has granted review in State v. William Darelle Smith. The case, which is an appeal from a conviction of First Degree Murder involves Facebook messages sent between a juror and the medical examiner during the trial.
After the medical examiner had concluded her testimony, the juror sent a message stating that the juror recognized the witness and “thought you did a great job today on the witness stand”. The message also stated the juror’s belief that “you really explained things so great!!” The medical examiner responded that “I was thinking that was you” and recognizing the impropriety added “there is a risk of a mistrial if that gets out”. To the medical examiner’s credit, she notified the trial court of these communications.
Despite the trial court’s knowledge of this contact, it refused defense counsel’s request to question the juror further regarding the Facebook communications. At the Court of Criminal Appeals, the appellate court rejected the defendant’s appeal finding the communication to be merely a “social communication” and no evidence that the juror was seeking extra or improper information about the case.
It seems likely that the Supreme Court granted review in order to better outline how to control digital communication and information gathering during trials. The most recent case law cited in the Court of Criminal Appeals decision is from 2000 and it seems that this issue deserves some new guidance to trial courts throughout the state. Not only in terms of communication but now additional information is available to any juror with a simple Google search. While there is only so much a trial court can do to control jurors and their access to information, it is important that such communications do not comprise the defendant’s right to a fair trial. It seems appropriate that the trial court with knowledge of potentially inappropriate communications or other technology usage would at the least make further inquiries.
It will be interesting to see what happens with this case and whether the Court finds that what happened here mandates a new trial. The Court of Criminal Appeals decision can be read here.