Jurors Playing Detective Risk Jail
In the classic 1957 movie 12 Angry Men juror Henry Fonda uses a bit of detective work to convince his fellow jurors that a youth on a murder charge should be found not guilty.
In the movie Fonda tells the jurors that during the trial he went out at night to inspect the murder scene. He stuns them by pulling from his pocket a flick knife he bought at a pawnshop near the murder scene that’s identical to the supposed “unique” murder weapon.
It’s great drama, but any juror who did that today could end up in jail. The law is clear. Jurors can only consider evidence produced in court during the trial.
Section 68C of the NSW Jury Act 1977 states “a juror for the trial of any criminal proceedings must not make an inquiry for the purpose of obtaining information about the accused, or any matters relating to the trial, except in the proper exercise of his or her functions as a juror.”
The penalty in NSW is up to two years jail and/or a fine up to $5,500. Other States have similar laws and penalties have been strengthened after a string of jurors playing detective caused costly mistrials.
The sad truth is jurors usually have good intentions in doing private research wanting to make the right decision. The Internet has made it so tempting and easy to check on things heard during a trial.
In Victoria a juror was fined $1200 for looking up legal terms like ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ on the Internet. Another made the mistake of looking up maps on the Internet because maps produced in court weren’t clear enough.
But judges are getting increasingly frustrated with jurors playing detective or using social media to publicly discuss trials. In England a juror who boasted on Facebook he would jail a suspected pedophile got two months jail last July for using prejudice rather than facts in the jury room. Another UK juror was jailed for two months for privately researching a fraud case he was sitting on.
It happens much more than the legal system would admit. A UK survey of jurors found one in four searched the Internet on their case. A 2010 University of NSW study questioned ten juries and found in four of them there were jurors who did their own investigations.
But whatever the rights or wrongs of this, people serving on a jury should know they risk big fines and jail terms if they decide to play detective.