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Originally published Friday, May 18, 2012 at 4:40 PM

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Modern technology enticing jurors to go beyond courtroom rules

One jury expert says jurors' unauthorized experiments signal something is amiss with the jury system.

Cox Newspapers


WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — From drunk tests to body-drying. Jurors, court watchers agree, sometimes do the darnedest things.

Juror Dennis DeMartin has gotten more than his 15 minutes of fame for revealing he drank three vodkas one night during the trial to determine whether Wellington, Fla., polo mogul John Goodman was unfit to drive in a 2010 crash that killed Scott Wilson, 23.

DeMartin is not the first juror to head home to experiment.

In Ohio, three jurors famously took showers, timed how long it took their bodies to air-dry and then shared their results with the panel that ultimately rejected a Cincinnati man's claim his wife drowned accidentally in a bathtub. The woman, who was dry when paramedics arrived, would have been wet if her husband had called 911 immediately, jurors found.

Based on what he called the "unorthodox shower sequence," the Ohio trial judge tossed out the verdict. Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Jeffrey Colbath last Friday ruled DeMartin's drinking experiment didn't affect the jury's decision, a finding Goodman's attorneys are expected to challenge on appeal.

In that case, Goodman — who was sentenced last week to 16 years in prison — was released this Friday after posting a $7 million bond; he returned to his estate, where he will remain under house arrest while he appeals his DUI manslaughter conviction and sentence. He could remain free for more than a year.

As for jurors' well-publicized extracurricular experiments and others that undoubtedly slip by undetected, they are a signal something is amiss with the jury system, said Thaddeus Hoffmeister, a professor at the University of Dayton School of Law in Ohio who specializes in watching jury behavior.

"To me, it's not a jury problem. It's a legal-system problem," said Hoffmeister, who writes a blog on juries.

If judges fully explained why it's so important for jurors not to conduct their own research and to abide by other time-honored rules of the criminal-justice system, they would be less likely to conduct their own research, he said. Under the rules, jurors are allowed to consider only testimony and evidence presented in the case.

Googling the defendant

These days, judges acknowledge, the urge to conduct independent research, to share experiences with others or to reach out to others involved in the trial is irresistible to some jurors.

The advent of cellphones, laptops and e-readers has put the world at jurors' fingertips, and some Internet-addicted people can't understand why they can't text, blog, tweet or post Facebook messages about the trial or search Google to find more information.

For young people, Hoffmeister said, such digital activity is as normal as breathing. "They have more faith in Wikipedia than someone who is testifying," he said.

Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Lucy Chernow Brown said she has had to deal with that attitude. Sent to Broward County on special assignment in 2010 to retry a murder case, she was overseeing jury selection when one potential juror reported the entire panel had been poisoned.

While waiting, one man Googled the name of the defendant and told others: "This is a bad guy. He ran away to Nicaragua after the murder." The man told Brown he knew he shouldn't have done it but couldn't stop himself. Brown said she had no choice but to start jury selection anew.

About looking it up

In one case, an appeals court reversed a manslaughter conviction because the jury foreman looked up the word "prudent" with his smartphone during deliberations and told other jurors what it meant. In that case, the appeals court ruled, the word was important. The jury was being asked whether Acreage, Fla., resident Jose Tapanes acted prudently when he fatally shot a neighbor who he claimed threatened him on his porch. Tapanes was acquitted when he was retried.

Hoffmeister argued jurors wouldn't feel compelled to secretly look up words if they could simply ask what they meant. Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Edward Fine said his ability to answer such questions is limited.

If there's a legal definition of a word or phrase that differs from how it is commonly used, he can explain the legal meaning. Otherwise, he must simply tell jurors to rely on their own knowledge. Judges are allowed only to rule on the law, he said.

However, he said, if a juror asked such a question during the trial, it is likely attorneys would elicit testimony to explain what a word meant.

Some of the rules regarding jurors are too restrictive and should be changed, Hoffmeister said. It is doubtful jurors heed warnings not to talk to their spouses about the case. Some probably glance at a headline or two. Some may even conduct meaningless experiments.

Palm Beach County Judge Barry Cohen said lawyers have told him that some jurors on DUI trials report they conducted a roadside sobriety test (walking a straight line, touching their nose, etc.) in the privacy of their homes.

Fine said that because smartphones and other electronic devices are relatively new, trial judges have little guidance about what is and isn't allowed. Appeals-court rulings are few.

Several years ago, Fine overruled attorneys' objections and allowed jurors to have a ruler while they were deliberating.

Such common-sense decisions are needed to address other issues juries confront, Hoffmeister said.

"The legal system has to adapt to technology and change," he said. "We need to start treating jurors more like adults and not like children."