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Criminal Trial Juror Faces Contempt Charge

With the popularity of social media, and the shrinking of our world as a result, it is understandable that many people have connections through online social networks, like Facebook and MySpace.

Unfortunately, the same laws apply to these environments that apply to in person contact between jurors and defendants – and when the courts are faced with the decision of whether someone is in violation of those laws in an online environment, they must use the same guidelines.

This situation is discussed in detail in the article below in which a juror in Britain was held in contempt of court for contacting the defendant through her Facebook profile. And although this situation takes place overseas, the results in the Criminal Courts of the US would be very similar.

Juror in Facebook contempt prosecution after ‘contacting defendant during trial’
By Andrew Hough
13 Jun 2011

A female juror will stand trial this week accused of contempt of court after she allegedly sent messages to a defendant through Facebook, causing a multi-million pound drug trial to collapse.

In a British legal first, Joanne Fraill, 40, will be prosecuted for allegedly exchanging messages on the social networking site with Jamie Sewart, one of the defendants she had been trying.

Prosecutors will claim Mrs Fraill allegedly chatted online to Mrs Sewart, who had been acquitted in the case, while verdicts on other trials were still being discussed.

Mrs Sewart, 34, also faces contempt proceedings because she is alleged to have asked Mrs Fraill, of Blackley, Manchester, for details of the jury’s deliberations.

Mrs Frail, who denies the charges, is also accused of using the internet to research the case against the judge’s orders. The pair could face jail if found guilty.

Dominic Grieve, the Attorney-General who will open the case at the High Court on Tuesday, will argue their actions cause a major drugs trial to collapse, leaving taxpayers facing a bill of more than £6million.

The case, to be heard by Lord Judge, the Lord Chief Justice, coincides with an appeal by another defendant in the trial, who is challenging his conviction because of the alleged conversation.

The aborted trial involving Mrs Sewart, of Bolton, occurred in Manchester last year and involved multiple charges and defendants.

It exposed a corrupt police officer’s links with a drugs gang in Bolton. Mrs Sewart also denies the charges.

After the Facebook conversation was discovered, the jury at Minshull Street Crown Court in Manchester had to be discharged from the 2½-month trial.

It was one of a series of four trials that had been sitting, which involved 500 witnesses, 14 barristers, five juries and more than 160 days in court.

One of the defendants, Gary Knox, a convicted drug dealer is appealing against his conviction on the basis of alleged jury misconduct, with the appeal also to be heard by Lord Judge.

Knox, 35, was jailed for six years for conspiracy to commit misconduct in a public office.

The court heard he bought sensitive information on drug dealers from police in return for a £20,000 BMW and Premier League match tickets.

A police officer, Phil Berry, 44, who received the gifts and admitted the same charge, was jailed for four years.

Lord Judge is reportedly expected to issue tough new guidelines on internet use by jurors, which he will argue will lead to contempt of court prosecutions.

New measures will include warnings from judges to jurors at the start of trials, information videos and notices throughout jury rooms.

Christopher Kinch, QC, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, said comments assuming the guilt of the defendant were possible grounds for appeal.

“The situation is a potential time-bomb for the jury system,” he told The Times.

“Left unchecked, we could move towards trial by X-factor-type online polling; or jurors might find themselves put under pressure by correspondents online.”