Monday, January 18, 2016

The Juror, the Victim's Stepmother and "Liking" a Social Networking Post

This post examines an opinion from the Supreme Court of Iowa:  State v. Webster, 865 N.W.2d 223 (2015).  As courts usually do, the Supreme Court begins the opinion by explaining how, and why, the prosecution at issue arose:
Tyler Webster shot and killed Buddy Frisbie. The State charged Webster with first-degree murder. A jury returned a guilty verdict of second-degree murder. Webster filed a posttrial motion seeking to vacate the conviction on grounds of juror misconduct. Webster also challenged several evidentiary rulings in which the district court refused to admit evidence that reflected poorly on Frisbie. The district court denied Webster's posttrial motion and entered judgment. Webster appealed.

On appeal, Webster claimed his conviction should be vacated because of juror misconduct and juror bias. Specifically, Webster claimed a juror failed to disclose that her daughter was a good friend of Frisbie's stepsister. Webster further claimed the same juror engaged in discussions about the case with third parties, posted comments on Facebook, and `liked’ a comment posted by Frisbie's stepmother on Facebook related to the trial. . . .
State v. Webster, supra.
The Supreme Court then outlined the events that led to Webster’s conviction:
Webster and Frisbie were long-time friends. On August 25, 2012, Webster, Frisbie, a mutual friend Doug Knight, and Frisbie's girlfriend Shelby Hall attended a party together. They decided to go fishing. Frisbie and Hall went to Frisbie's trailer to retrieve fishing gear, and Webster joined them in the trailer as it began to rain. Knight went to his own trailer nearby.

In Frisbie's trailer, Webster claimed he believed Frisbie was sexually assaulting Hall. He left the trailer, went to his truck, grabbed a gun, came back to the trailer, and shot Frisbie in the face at close range to avoid hitting Hall, whose body partially covered Frisbie.

Hall ran to Knight's trailer and explained what had just happened. Knight retrieved a shotgun, and when Webster approached the trailer with a gun in his hand, Knight told him to put the gun down. Webster complied and Knight called 911. Webster admitted to the dispatcher that he had just shot Frisbie. Dispatch instructed Webster to walk to the end of the driveway, lie on his stomach, and wait for law enforcement to arrive. Law enforcement arrived and arrested Webster without incident.

The State charged Webster with first-degree murder. . . . During the week-long trial, the court reminded the jury of its `long admonition’ previously given. The long admonition, however, is not part of the record. The first admonition found in the record occurred before the noon recess during the first day of trial. This admonition stated:

`And so at this time I will again remind you of that long admonition that I previously read to you about you don't talk between yourselves, you don't talk with anyone else, you don't listen or read any news reports. This matter is not yet submitted so you don't communicate with anyone or each other about what you have heard so far, and you keep an open mind and you don't come to any conclusions.’

The court gave a similar rendition of this admonition numerous times throughout the trial.
State v. Webster, supra.
The opinion goes on to explain that,
[a]fter the defense rested, and outside the presence of the jury, the district court alerted the parties to an issue that had arisen in the case. The district court told the parties that the clerk of court and the court attendant had advised the court they had received information that one of the jurors had stated prior to being seated that she would probably never be picked for the jury because `she knew the family.’ The district court stated the court attendant was concerned because she had sat through voir dire and did not recall the juror saying anything about her connection to either family.

The court then conducted an in camera hearing and the juror was questioned. The juror told the court that her twenty-seven-year-old daughter was friends with Frisbie's half-sister or stepsister as they had attended high school together. The juror stated she did not know Frisbie, and other than telling her daughter she had jury duty, she did not discuss the case with her. She also stated she was friendly with Frisbie's parents, as they worked in the courthouse and she also worked in the courthouse. She also noted she thought she knew a family member of Webster's wife. Webster's attorney noted the juror's familiarity with these individuals commenting, `I understand this is a small town.’ When asked if the relationships would cause her to be biased, the juror stated she would not be biased and would rely upon her notes in making her decision.

The juror further stated she was a Facebook user and knew about the shooting the night of the incident through Facebook. She stated that while she had been on Facebook during the trial playing games, she had `not read anybody else's postings, because [she] kn[ew] if they posted something [she] didn't want to know about it.’ At the conclusion of the in camera examination of the juror, the defense declined to challenge the juror for cause.
State v. Webster, supra.
The Supreme Court went on to explain that 
[t]he next day, the parties completed closing arguments and the case was submitted to the jury. In its jury instructions, the district court stated, in relevant part:

`You may not communicate about this case before reaching your verdict. This includes cell phones, and electronic media such as text messages, Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, YouTube, Twitter, email, etc. Do not do any research or make any investigation about this case on your own. Also, do not research any information about this case, the law, or the people involved, including the parties, the witnesses, the lawyers, or the judge. This includes using the Internet to research events or people referenced at trial.’

After being instructed, the jury deliberated and returned a verdict finding Webster guilty of murder in the second degree in violation of Iowa Code sections 707.1 and 707.3 (2013).
State v. Webster, supra.
After he was convicted, Webster filed a motion for a new trial which was, in part, “based upon juror misconduct or juror bias”.  State v. Webster, supra. The Supreme Court explained that Webster
explicitly claimed in his . . . motion that he was denied a fair trial based on juror misconduct, but did not advance a separate argument based on juror bias. Juror misconduct and juror bias are related, overlapping, but analytically distinct concepts. Juror misconduct ordinarily relates to actions of a juror, often contrary to the court's instructions or admonitions, which impair the integrity of the fact-finding process at trial. See generally Jimmie E. Tinsley, Jury Misconduct Warranting New Trial, 24 Am. Jur. Proof of Facts §§ 35–38. . . . Typical acts of misconduct include communication with others outside the jury about the case, independently investigating the crime or accident scenes outside of judicial oversight, or engaging in independent research about questions of law or fact. See id. Juror bias, on the other hand, focuses on the ability of a juror to impartially consider questions raised at trial. See 50A C.J.S. Juries § 369, at 495–97 (2008). A biased juror is simply unable to come to a fair decision in a case based upon the facts and law presented at trial. See id. A juror may be biased without engaging in any kind of misconduct. Conversely, an impartial and fair-minded juror may nonetheless engage in juror misconduct. Jurisdictions have developed a variety of approaches to deal with questions of misconduct and bias. . . .
State v. Webster, supra.
The court also explained that, in arguing he was entitled to a new trial for juror misconduct and juror bias, Webster
seems to apply the three-part substantive standard for granting a new trial based on juror misconduct articulated in State v. Cullen, 357 N.W.2d 24, 27 (Iowa 1984). In Cullen, we stated that in order to be entitled to a new trial based upon juror misconduct, the
(1) evidence from the jurors must consist only of objective facts as to what actually occurred in or out of the jury room bearing on misconduct; (2) the acts or statements complained of must exceed tolerable bounds of jury deliberation; and (3) it must appear the misconduct was calculated to, and with reasonable probability did, influence the verdict.
Id. . . .

Webster claims the juror committed misconduct by failing to fully disclose her relationship to the Frisbie family during voir dire and at the in camera examination during trial [and] by violating the admonitions of the district court by `liking’ a comment of the victim's stepmother on Facebook. . . .

Although packaged as a claim of juror misconduct, Webster also asserts he was denied a fair trial due to impermissible juror bias. . . . According to Webster, the juror saw the Frisbie family as a `good family,’ recognized that she would not be seated as a juror because she knew the family, was not forthcoming during voir dire about her relationship with the Frisbies, and was evasive about her relationship with the Frisbies when questioned in camera in order to remain on the jury. Further, Webster contends, the juror showed her true colors after the trial when she smugly told a friend of Frisbie's stepmother that she was never questioned about her relationship with the Frisbies and commented on Frisbie's stepmother's Facebook post shortly after the verdict that the juror wished there could have been a first-degree murder verdict. . . .
State v. Webster, supra.
The opinion goes on to explain that
[o]n the question of the asserted misconduct arising from the juror's liking a comment of the victim's stepmother on Facebook during trial, the State contends the juror's conduct was of little importance. The comment which she liked on Facebook was a declaration from the stepmother in the midst of trial, `Give me strength.’ According to the State, the juror's statement that she liked the `Give me strength’ statement does not relate to the merits of the case and had no relationship to the guilt or innocence of the defendant. According to the State, the juror did not think the inconsequential act of clicking a computer button liking the stepmother's status amounted to a communication in violation of the district court's admonition.
State v. Webster, supra.
After reviewing the arguments from both sides, the Supreme Court took up the issue of possible juror bias (along with juror misconduct), noting that
[o]f particular concern . . . is a juror who declines to truthfully answer a voir dire question in order to avoid being removed from the jury panel. When a juror conceals information in voir dire in order to avoid either a strike for cause or a preemptory strike, it deprives the accused `of the ability to determine whether [the juror] harbored any prejudices or biases against [the accused] or in favor of the State.’  State v. Dellinger, 696 S.E.2d 38 (Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia 2010). In addition, deliberate lying by a juror in voir dire may strongly suggest the kind of actual bias that may require disqualification of that juror and, if the juror participates in jury deliberation, may require a new trial. . . .

Here, however, there is no evidence the juror provided false testimony during voir dire. Of course, the fact that voir dire was not reported poses a difficult evidentiary problem for Webster. The parties seem to agree, however, that during voir dire, one prospective juror volunteered she had relationships with the parties. The parties further agree that the juror was not specifically asked about her relationship with the Frisbies. We do not think the failure to volunteer an answer to an unasked question amounts to juror misconduct. . . .

Further, in the in camera examination, the juror stated that she knew the Frisbies in passing, that her daughter was a friend of Frisbie's stepsister, that she knew Frisbie's parents well enough to say `Hi’ to them, and that she was Facebook friends with Frisbie's stepmother.  At this point, the door was open to further explore these issues. . . . However, Webster's lawyer elected not to thoroughly explore the nature of the relationship, including the intriguing mention that she and Frisbie's stepmother were friends on Facebook. Instead, Webster's counsel asked a series of questions that seemed more designed to rehabilitate the juror than challenge her. At the conclusion of the hearing, Webster did not challenge the juror for cause. Based on the record before us, we cannot conclude the juror engaged in misconduct by lying during the in camera hearing.

In short, we are not faced with a juror who lied during voir dire or during an in camera hearing in order to avoid the risk of being disqualified. Thus, an important feature present in many actual disqualification cases is lacking here. Further, both at the in camera hearing and in testimony related to the combined motion for new trial and arrest of judgment, the juror emphatically emphasized that she was capable of, and did in fact, base her verdict solely on the evidence. . . . Of course, the juror's testimony may be self-serving, but the district court found her testimony credible. The mere fact a juror has knowledge of parties or witnesses does not indicate actual bias or require juror disqualification. . . . The district court explained to the parties prior to the in camera hearing that court personnel had advised him the juror had stated the fact that she knew the victim's family would disqualify her from jury duty. As the above cases demonstrate, if the juror in fact had that belief, it would have been a mistake of law.
State v. Webster, supra.
The court then pointed out that this
brings us to the most troublesome point in the case. There is some suggestion the juror, after the in camera inspection but prior to the verdict, clicked `like’ on a Facebook comment by the victim's stepmother which stated, `Give me strength.’ A juror who directly violates the admonitions of the court and communicates with the mother of a crime victim about a case certainly raises questions about her ability to be an impartial juror. This action occurred after voir dire and apparently after the in camera hearing. Thus, Webster has not waived his bias challenge based upon this event, which would not have been uncovered through diligent use of ordinary trial processes.

However, the record here does not disclose the court's initial admonition or when the juror clicked `like.’ In any event, while the short form admonition to the jury in the record indicated that the juror should not communicate with parties and witnesses about the case, the juror apparently thought (erroneously) that merely clicking `like’ on Facebook was not a `communication.’ Moreover, the communication did not relate to the guilt or innocence of the accused, but only showed a degree of empathy for a grieving stepmother who lost her son. A juror who does not have empathy for a grieving mother whose son was a homicide victim would be awfully cold hearted. If we disqualified jurors because they empathized with the family of crime victims, we would have no jurors. . . . We find no abuse of discretion on this point.

Notwithstanding our resolution of the issues in this appeal, we do not approve of the juror's conduct in this case. While the click of the mouse does not require reversal of Webster's criminal conviction, it is troublesome nevertheless. While it did not occur in this case, a single click of the mouse on Facebook can trigger cascading responses. Further, messages posted on Facebook may be viewed by many persons, generating a perception of a miscarriage of justice.

In the future our district courts would do well to recognize that in this day and age, our jurors are part of the new electronic world. This can pose a problem in our jury trials. We have held that the click of the mouse in this case was not misconduct sufficient to require a new trial under the three-part Cullen test. We have also held that the click of the mouse was insufficient to establish that the juror was actually biased in light of the record developed at the posttrial hearing. The click of the mouse did, however, show poor judgment.
State v. Webster, supra.
The court also noted that, since “there is a growing body of highly publicized cases showing the risk posed by jurors engaged in electronic and social media activity”, courts should be proactive, in jury cases, and take steps intended to alleviate the risk.   State v. Webster, supra.  It went on to explain that
authorities suggest courts should frequently, as a matter of course, instruct jurors not to use social media to communicate about the trial and clearly explain what constitutes communication. . . . The admonition should be given early and often, beginning at the time jurors are sworn and repeated periodically as the trial progresses. While there are many sources of potential admonitions, the United States Judicial Conference Committee on Court Administration and Case Management has recommended that federal district courts use an admonition related to electronic media that may provide a guide to Iowa judges. See Judicial Conference Comm. on Ct. Admin. & Case Mgmt., U.S. Cts., Proposed Model Jury Instructions: The Use of Electronic Technology to Conduct Research on or Communicate about a Case (2012), available at www.uscourts. gov/file/3159/download?token=3s0ovosm; see also U.S. Cts., Revised Jury Instructions Hope to Deter Juror Use of Social Media During Trial (2012), available atwww.uscourts. gov/news/2012/08/21/revised-jury-instructions-hope-deter-juror-use-social-media-during-trial. The instruction states, in part:

`I know that many of you use cell phones, Blackberries, the internet and other tools of technology. You also must not talk to anyone at any time about this case or use these tools to communicate electronically with anyone about the case. This includes your family and friends. You may not communicate with anyone about the case on your cell phone, through e-mail, Blackberry, iPhone, text messaging, or on Twitter, through any blog or website, including Facebook, Google+, My Space, LinkedIn, or YouTube. You may not use any similar technology of social media, even if I have not specifically mentioned it here. I expect you will inform me as soon as you become aware of another juror's violation of these instructions.’

Proposed Model Jury Instructions. The instructions also state this admonition `should be provided to jurors before trial, at the close of a case, at the end of each day before jurors return home, and other times, as appropriate.’ Id. A trial court providing jurors with admonitions such as those in the federal model will minimize the risk of unnecessary and costly mistrials due to the failure of jurors to clearly understand their obligations in the electronic world.
State v. Webster, supra.

For the reasons outlined above, along with other factors, the Supreme Court upheld Webster’s conviction. State v. Webster, supra.

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