One of the most critical aspects of serving on a jury is maintaining an open mind about the case in question. The ideal is an impartial jury, made up of people who hold no specific opinions regarding the case before hearing all the evidence. Social media has made the job of finding those people quite a bit more difficult, to say the least.
The old adage, “News travels fast”, has never applied more than it does in today’s digital world. News used to take days, even weeks, to travel around the world. Today, that news travels around the globe in minutes.
This is not to say people don’t have opinions which may color their judgement, without having heard the specifics of a particular case prior to the selection process. This is where the vetting process in selecting a jury comes into play. Even when a prospective juror is completely unaware of the particulars of a case, they may have strong ideas and personal beliefs which would taint their ability to view the facts without personal prejudice.
The vetting process is designed to avoid that, and find the most impartial jurors in order to guarantee the accused gets a fair trial.
For example, people have very strong feelings when it comes to crimes involving children. They often do not care about mitigating circumstances and evidence. They hear that a child was injured, or God forbid murdered, and they react emotionally. They don’t care if the law recognizes a difference between “Reckless Endangerment” and “Intent to do Bodily Harm”. All they know is a child died and it’s pretty much game over in their mind. This can be especially true when prospective jurors have a personal experience, like the loss of a child, which would most likely color their judgement.
The internet has made the remote and distant very up close and personal. Added to that, the media engages in rampant speculation, giving people the impression they are speaking fact when the truth is, they are, more often than not, pushing hot buttons to get an emotional reaction in order to reach more viewers.
A recent headline caught my attention. A 12 year old child committed suicide after being constantly bullied by their peers. In the Facebook post, from a local media outlet, the child was pictured holding their pet cat. The face of the child was cropped from the photo, making it pretty easy for me to picture in my mind, my own child in their place. It was truly heartbreaking. I found myself becoming enraged. Such a sweet child, holding their beloved pet. How could anyone hurt this child to the point of driving them to take their own life? Frankly, I was so upset, for a brief moment, I was ready to apply the guillotine to everyone involved, including the parents of the bullies.
That is hardly the mindset one is looking for when vetting prospective jurors.
Even the prosecution knows, as much as they may want to win a conviction, they cannot allow the concept of justice and a fair trial to be tossed aside, even in the most heinous of criminal cases. Prosecutors are people too, and they certainly have personal feelings, but they are sworn to uphold the law, and every prosecutor I know takes that responsibility very seriously.
Cases involving the death penalty are perhaps the most difficult for everyone involved to set aside their personal convictions and beliefs.
One case that comes to mind was a man who had murdered his wife. The accused had actually confessed to the crime, so the jury selection was for the sentencing process.
One of the prospective jurors interviewed was, at the start, a seemingly good candidate. He answered the questions in such a way as to indicate he could be very impartial, until we got to the part of the accused having dismembered his wife’s body and depositing the various parts in different locations.
When we got to the accused leading the authorities to the location of his wife’s head, this prospective juror blurted out, “Oh man! He’s got to go!”
Scratch that juror.
So, we see that even in the most ideal of situations, it can be extremely difficult to find 12 people willing to put aside their personal feelings for the greater good. In the case I just cited, the accused was mentally disturbed, a paranoid schizophrenic who, despite having been professionally diagnosed and treated, finally went over the edge.
Did he deserve to die for his crime, knowing that he was not in full control of his own mind? After all, that was the whole point of the trial– do we sentence this man to death? This is not something anyone in the criminal justice system takes lightly.
Social media often distorts the truth to the point of making it nearly impossible to remain impartial. Finding 12 people who have not been tainted by the constant media bombardment of websites like Facebook and Twitter can be a grueling and time consuming process.
For the prosecution and the defense, it is more than just our job to wade through these troubled waters; it is our sworn duty to protect the right of the accused to a fair trial.
No matter what they’re saying on Facebook.