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Second thoughts on a judicial “harden up” (on name suppression and pre-trial publicity)

  • June 18th, 2011

Yesterday's post prompted a friend to tell me of her experience as a juror. On reflection yesterday's post was too unqualified.  I'm guilty of what I've often railed about  – urging judges to action "as if the problem [of bias from information gained outside the courtroom] does not exist or will go away if we are fervent enough in our belief that it should not be there" (to adopt my criticism in a recent post). 

The friend explained that of course she'd done her own internet research at home. She discovered the offender's previous similar offenses. She used that information to counter  absurd pop psychology theories of another juror. Her research comforted her on the jury's eventual consensus conviction, though she thought the court evidence would have supported convictions on more serious charges. She found the jury process unsettling, because of the poor logic (and intellect) on display. The judge had warned the jury that they must not do their own research, but she thought most people of her age on juries would routinely ignore that. For them, googling in uncertainty is just too ingrained.

Her story reminded me of how much more is needed, urgently, than simple assertions of confidence in the power of court processes to minimise the influence of unbalanced external information. We can't stuff the empowering internet information genie back into its bottle. It is overdue for judges to revise procedures so the court (in particular prosecution and defence lawyers) can:

a)  invite the jury to disclose the information and theories they think relevant, which have originated other than in the formal court elucidation of evidence;

b) adduce balancing information;

c) discuss with the jury those theories and information to put it in context, and

d) ensure the judge can address that 'extraneous' material with specific directions.

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