WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — At the Palm Beach County Courthouse, where May is Juror Appreciation Month, citizens who answer the call for jury service can tap into free Internet access from their smartphone to surf, tweet, text, post and blog to their heart's content.
Several years ago, one local juror used an iPhone in just that way - and ended up adding a Palm Beach County manslaughter trial to the growing list of cases tossed because of jurors' use of electronic communications and social media.
"You can go to Google, look up 'juror misconduct' and find a number of cases," Chief Circuit Judge Peter Blanc said. "I think the fact that you can do that alone speaks to the impact technology has on the process."
To try to reduce such cases, Florida's Supreme Court this month changed the standard instructions that judges give jurors at the start of trials to include cautions against the use of the Internet and social media.
As part of the new instructions, Florida judges are mandated to stress that jurors should not communicate about cases before them using any form of electronic communication.
"Do not send or accept any messages related to this case or your jury service," the new instructions add. "Do not discuss this case or ask for advice by any means at all, including posting information on an Internet website, chat room or blog."
Amy Singer, a Fort Lauderdale- and Gainesville-based jury consultant who has been in the business for more than 30 years, called the change in instructions a good start but said the court will need to improve on it.
"Like everything else, it'll be trial and error, and there may be ways people might find to go around it," Singer said.
Many judges already caution jurors against using smartphones, iPads and other electronics in their instructions that panelists avoid any media coverage of a case.
But Singer said she's become acquainted with "social media addiction" among prospective jurors.
They're the ones, she said, who always keep their phones at their sides, constantly grabbing them to check email, go on Facebook, or text friends and loved ones.
When asked about it during jury selection, many jurors have said they would simply be unable to stay off Facebook or Twitter during trials as short as several days, Singer said.
So jury consultants like her have made it an ever-growing portion of their strategy to track prospective jurors on social media sites.
Singer said she trolls online discussions boards to see how people respond to an issue. She then looks at the social media pages of the posters to get a sense of which types of jurors would be more likely to side with her clients.
Singer said that practice is especially important in high-profile cases she's worked on recently, including the trial of Casey Anthony.
Jury consultant Joshua Dubin, who once worked as an intern with Singer, also monitored the Facebook pages of prospective jurors in polo mogul John Goodman's DUI manslaughter trial.
Forever a part of the court record in that case is a Facebook post from one prospective juror who took a picture of herself in front of the courthouse during jury selection and received a couple of comments from friends.
Circuit Judge Jeffrey Colbath questioned the prospective juror about the post and eventually ruled it benign, but she did not make the panel.
In another Palm Beach County case, Acreage resident Jose Tapanes had his manslaughter conviction tossed when it was discovered that a juror used an iPhone to look up the word "prudent" during deliberations. Tapanes was acquitted at the end of his second trial.
Besides the change in the Florida jury instructions, Blanc pointed to an addition to the jurors' welcome video as an indication that courts are trying to be vigilant about electronics and social media. The new part of the video, unveiled this month, echoes the new standard jury instructions against texting, tweeting and blogging about jury service.
"I think anything we can do to ensure that jurors are only relying on the evidence in the case and nothing else is a good thing," he said.
Consultants like Singer, however, are unsure whether any jury instruction can completely keep technology out of the deliberation room.
"Contamination has always been a problem, but now, this is not even a newspaper on steroids - this is something else," Singer said of social media. "This is the Information Age. There's really no way to control it."
HOW JURY INSTRUCTIONS HAVE CHANGED
Portion of old jury instructions at the start of trial:
u25A0 You must decide this case only on the evidence presented during the trial in your presence, and in the presence of the respondent, the attorneys and myself. You must not conduct any investigation on your own.
u25A0 Accordingly, you must not visit any places described in the evidence, or the scene of the occurrence that is the subject of the trial, unless I direct you to view the scene.
Portion of new jury instructions at the start