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Mistrial Declared in First-Degree Murder Case Over Juror’s Facebook Comments a Year Ago

Posted Jul 19, 2012 2:44 PM CDT
By Martha Neil

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Corrected: An unusual mistrial declared in a high-profile murder case this week, over comments made by a juror on a Facebook page roughly a year ago, offer a cautionary example about how far-reaching potential pitfalls concerning social media use can be.

The comments were found on Tuesday by family members of the murder victim, Sabrina Patterson. The family members searched on the Internet for material related to the jurors' names, finding some negative comments about the case against defendant Fred Prosser—Patterson's ex-boyfriend and the father of her two children—that had been made by a woman known as Juror No. 12, CBC News reports.

After the family brought the Facebook comments to prosecutors' attention, a mistrial was declared Wednesday, just as the government was about to begin its opening arguments in the Moncton, New Brunswick, trial.

“I think slowly everybody is waking up to the fact that this could be an important angle for everybody involved in the justice process to pursue,” said Robert Currie in a subsequent CBC News story. He oversees the Law and Technology Institute at Dalhousie University's Shulich Law School.

A recent article by two Florida attorneys titled Juror Misconduct in the Age of Social Networking" provides further cautionary examples, law bloggers have noted. It was published in the Winter 2012 issue of the Federation of Defense & Corporate Counsel Quarterly and can be read by clicking on a link included in a Day on Torts post about the issue.

One footnote in the article, in particular, highlights a multiplicity of potential mistrial grounds "sitting out there ripe for the picking on social media, that no lawyer will ever see," Ronald V. Miller Jr. wrote in a post on the Maryland Injury Lawyer Blog.

The footnote concerns a Feb. 15, 2012 general Twitter search for “jury duty” by the authors of the FDCC Quarterly article. "In the hour preceding the search, there were more than 170 tweets referencing jury duty on Twitter," the authors write. They included "Hes guilty" and “Someone, pls take a bat & beat me senseless with it. Why am I here yo!?! Jury duty is so cornyyyyyyyyyy.”

Mistrials over juror comments online can also, of course, occur in civil cases. Bar and court committees are developing pattern jury instructions on social media use to try to deal with the issue, the Day on Torts post notes, linking to several such efforts.

Updated at 3:27 to state that the family of the Sabrina Patterson alerted the Crown about the Facebook posts.

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