Juror misconduct and technology: a perfect storm
As I mentioned in recent columns, I’m in the process of drafting my half of the annual update to “Criminal Law in New York,” a substantive criminal law treatise that I co-author with Brighton Town Court Judge Karen Morris. Every year, during the course of my research, I often stumble upon cases that offer an interesting perspective on the intersection of law and technology. This year was no different, and one particularly timely issue that I encountered involved juror misconduct occurring due to the improper use of technology by jurors.
Oftentimes these types of cases are discussed in the context of jurors using social media platforms to discuss trial proceedings despite being instructed not to do so, but the two cases that caught my eye while researching cases this summer involved jurors improperly using other types of technology in ways that were alleged to have had an impact on criminal trials.
In this column I’ll discuss the first case, People v. Neulander, 162 A.D.3d 1763 (4th Dep’t 2018), where the defendant was convicted of murder in the second degree. One issue on appeal was whether a number of text messages sent by a juror during the trial to friends and family constituted juror misconduct that created a significant risk that a substantial right of defendant was prejudiced.
Specifically, as established during the hearing on the defendant’s motion to set aside the verdict, the juror in question sent the following text messages to her father and her friends during the trial:
(A) text message from her father that stated: “Make sure he's guilty!” During the trial, juror number 12 received a text message from a friend asking if she had seen the “scary person” yet. Juror number 12 responded: “I've seen him since day 1.” Juror number 12 admitted at the subsequent hearing into her misconduct that she knew that the moniker “scary person” was a reference to defendant. Another friend sent juror number 12 a text message during the trial that stated: “I'm so anxious to hear someone testify against Jenna [defendant's daughter].” Juror number 12 responded: “No one will testify against her! The prosecution has already given all of his witnesses, we are on the defense side now! The prosecutor can cross examine her once she is done testifying for the defense.” Later that night, the same friend replied via text message: “My mind is blown that the daughter [Jenna] isn't a suspect.”
This conduct was reported to the court by an alternate juror after the guilty verdict had been rendered. In the juror’s affidavit in opposition to the motion to set aside the verdict, the juror stated that she had followed all of the court’s instructions. Nevertheless, a subsequent forensic examination of her cell phone showed that she had deleted many messages and erased her web browsing history, and she was unable to provide any explanations for doing so.
Based on the evidence adduced at the hearing, the court granted the defendant’s motion for a new trial, concluding that “due to juror number 12's flagrant failure to follow the court's instructions and her concealment of that substantial misconduct, defendant, through no fault of his own, was denied the opportunity to seek her discharge during trial on the ground that she was grossly unqualified and/or had engaged in substantial misconduct…thus…(the) defendant established by a preponderance of the evidence that juror number 12 engaged in substantial misconduct that ‘created a significant risk that a substantial right of ... defendant was prejudiced.”
This case is a great example of the reality that even tools as familiar and simple as texting can have a significant impact on trials. So don’t make the mistake of discounting or overlooking the potential effect of “old school” technology on your client’s case.
In next week’s column, I’ll discuss a juror misconduct case whereby jurors conducted legal research on their home computers and also used video editing software to enhance images from a video in evidence. So make sure to tune in next week!
Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase law practice management software. She is the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes legal technology columns for Above the Law and ABA Journal and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. You can follow her on Twitter at @nikiblack or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.