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Jurors with Google send court cases into mistrial

Last week, a juror in a big federal drug trial in South Florida admitted to the judge that he had been doing research on the case on the Internet, directly violating the judge's instructions and centuries of legal rules. When the judge questioned the rest of the jury, he got an even bigger shock.

Eight other jurors had been doing the same thing. The federal judge, William Zloch, had no choice but to declare a mistrial, wasting eight weeks of work by prosecutors and defense lawyers.

"We were stunned," said a defense lawyer, Peter Raben, who was told by the jury that he was on the verge of winning the case.

It might be called a Google mistrial. The use of BlackBerrys and iPhones by jurors gathering and sending out information on cases is wreaking havoc on trials around the country.

Last week, a building products company asked an Arkansas court to overturn a $12.6 million judgment against it after a juror used Twitter to send updates during the civil trial.

Jurors are not supposed to seek information outside of the courtroom. But now, using their cell phones, they can look up the name of a defendant on the Web or examine an intersection using Google maps. They can also tell their friends what is happening in the jury room, though they are supposed to keep their opinions and deliberations secret.

In the Tampa Bay area, court personnel say they haven't yet had any significant problems with jurors and technology.

But the issue did arise in February in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court during the murder trial of Fred Cooper, accused of killing two people in 2005 in Fort Myers. The trial was moved to Pinellas from Lee County, and the judge told prospective jurors not to research or read about the case.

The next day, he dismissed a woman in the jury pool who admitted going home and looking up the case on the Internet. He reprimanded another who said she had tried but failed to find information online. The person did not serve on the jury.

Pinellas Pasco Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett said he can envision a day when judges will instruct jurors not to update their Facebook status or use Twitter during a trial. It'll be just like telling jurors not to read newspapers or watch TV.

Assistant Hillsborough State Attorney Pam Bondi agreed. "That may be something that judges may have to instruct jurors on," she said.

St. Petersburg Times staff writers Jamal Thalji, Andrew Meacham, Colleen Jenkins and Curtis Krueger contributed to this report.

Jurors with Google send court cases into mistrial 03/17/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 17, 2009 11:08pm]

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