Tennessee Supreme Court Frowns Upon Juror Facebook Messaging State’s Expert Witness

Let’s say you are a juror in a first degree murder case. Some advice: Don’t look up the state’s expert on Facebook and message him. Seems reasonable enough, right? Well, let’s talk about State v. Smith, — S.W.3d —, No. M2010–01384–SC–R11–CD (Tenn. Sept. 10, 2013). That appeal, as the court set forth, concerned “the appropriate response when a trial court learns during a jury’s deliberations that a juror exchanged Facebook messages with one of the State’s witnesses during the trial.”

Sigh.  Here we go again.

During void dire, the attorneys did not ask the prospective jurors if they knew the assistant medical examiner who performed the autopsy and would testify on behalf of the state (even though several or the jurors were employed by the Vanderbilt Medical Center, where the witness had trained). Of course, as is custom, the trial court instructed the seated jurors not to speak with any of the attorneys or witnesses. The trial proceeded as per usual. However, during the jury deliberations, the assistant medical examiner emailed the trial judge the following missive:

I can’t send you actual copies of the emails since Facebook is blocked from my computer here at work, but here is a transcript:

[Juror]: “A-dele!! I thought you did a great job today on the witness stand … I was in the jury … not sure if you recognized me or not!! You really explained things so great!!”

[Medical Examiner]: “I was thinking that was you. There is a risk of a mistrial if that gets out.”

[Juror]: “I know … I didn’t say anything about you … there are 3 of us on the jury from Vandy and one is a physician (cardiologist) so you may know him as well. It has been an interesting case to say the least.”

I regret responding to his email at all, but regardless I felt that this was a fairly serious violation of his responsibilities as a juror and that I needed to make you and General Miller aware. I did not recognize the above-referenced cardiologist or any other jurors.

First of all, yikes. The trial court informed the attorneys of the communication, and the jury ultimately returned with a verdict of guilty. The trial court denied a motion for new trial based on its refusal to permit the defense to question the juror about the improper communications. The court of appeals affirmed. Here’s what the Tennessee Supreme Court said:

Even though technology has made it easier for jurors to communicate with third parties and has made these communications more difficult to detect, our pre-internet precedents provide appropriate principles and procedures to address extra-judicial communications, even when they occur on social media websites and applications such as Facebook.

When the trial court received competent and reliable evidence that an extra-judicial communication between a juror and a State’s witness had taken place during the trial, it was required to do more than simply inform the parties about the email and then await the jury’s verdict. The trial court erred by failing to immediately conduct a hearing in open court to obtain all the relevant facts surrounding the extra-judicial communication between [the medical examiner] and [the juror]. This hearing may very well have necessitated calling both [the juror] and [the medical examiner] to testify under oath about their relationship and the effect of the communication on [the juror's] ability to serve as a juror. Because the contents of the email focus only on events occurring before the jury received its instructions and retired to deliberate, the court may also have been required to call other members of the jury to determine whether [the juror in question] shared any extraneous information with other jurors.

[T]he portion of the trial court’s order that denies Mr. Smith’s motion for a new trial based on [the juror's] improper extra-judicial communication with [the medical examiner] is vacated. The case is remanded to the trial court to conduct a hearing to determine whether [the juror's] Facebook communication with [the medical examiner] disqualified him from continuing to serve on Mr. Smith’s jury. Following this hearing, the trial court shall make findings of fact and conclusions of law regarding whether the challenged communication requires [the juror's] disqualification or whether [the juror's] misconduct was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. If, for any reason, the trial court is unable to conduct a full and fair hearing with regard to [the juror's] improper extra-judicial communication with [the medical examiner], then the trial court shall grant Mr. Smith a new trial.

The facts of this case demonstrate that this technological age now requires trial courts to take additional precautions to assure that jurors understand their obligation to base their decisions only on the evidence admitted in court. Trial courts should give jurors specific, understandable instructions that prohibit extra-judicial communications with third parties and the use of technology to obtain facts that have not been presented in evidence. Trial courts should clearly prohibit jurors’ use of devices such as smart phones and tablet computers to access social media websites or applications to discuss, communicate, or research anything about the trial.  In addition, trial courts should inform jurors that their failure to adhere to these prohibitions may result in a mistrial and could expose them to a citation for contempt. Trial courts should deliver these instructions and admonitions on more than one occasion.

(Footnotes omitted).

What the heck was this juror thinking? The trial court instructed the jurors not to communicate with witnesses during the course of the trial. This means that even after hearing that instruction from the court, the juror ventured home from the courthouse, logged into Facebook, looked up the medical examiner’s profile, and send him a direct message on that social media site. Gee whiz.

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