Facebook chats between UK juror and defendant lead to mistrial

facebook-jurorA UK juror has admitted to London’s high court that she used Facebook to contact the defendant in a case she was involved in. The former jury member, Joanna Fraill, faces jail time for corresponding with defendant, Jamie Stewart, who was acquitted of major drug charges. The women’s Facebook exchanges caused the jury to be discharged and the trial to fall apart. Taxpayers were forced to help pay the six million pound fallout – something Fraill may now be held responsible for.

Fraill used the Internet to research other defendants involved in the case, something jurors were explicitly told not to do. According to the Guardian, the former juror decided to contact Stewart, who was facing charges in the multimillion dollar drug case, because she “felt ‘empathetic’ and saw ‘considerable parallels’ between their lives.” She began talking to Stewart over Facebook’s chat client after the defendant had already been acquitted, telling her that the other alleged parties were holding their ground in court. Fraill also asked Stewart not to tell anyone they had spoken for fear of a mistrial and other repercussions. Both women are accused of acting in contempt of court and prosecutors say Fraill will not be able to avoid jail time.

Court documents say Fraill, who is expressing guilt and remorse for her actions, had a “’most unhappy adolescence, a troubled adult life’ and ‘domestic misfortune on a very considerable scale.’” Unfortunately her regrettable background won’t be enough to keep her out of jail. The case has fallen apart at the seams as a result of her actions, as other alleged guilty parties involved in the case are now applying for their convictions to be overturned on account of jury misconduct. Considering the case was no small matter – one man was found guilty of bribing police for information on drug dealers – the consequences will be serious.

This is hardly the first time social networking and the Internet age have caused trouble in the courtroom. Florida lawyers and judges were asked to “unfriend” each other on Facebook, and recently Twitter was responsible for outing the identity of a famous UK football player involved in a scandalous court case, violating the country’s court privacy laws. While the detriments of a completely connected and communicating world are many, some authorities want to find the upside. Earlier this year a Massachusetts courtroom began allowing journalists and bloggers to use social networking to real-time update the community on cases, even creating a YouTube and Twitter live feed, in an attempt to involve more people in the legal process.

It’s still unclear why Fraill felt so inclined to reach out to Stewart over Facebook, but it and other social networking mediums have begun to confuse what types of communication are appropriate. The fact that Facebook relationships can seem as shallow on the surface as an encounter with a stranger at the bus stop, can also be adding to a cavalier attitude about communicating via the site. Unfortunately, new social norms created by Facebook aren’t going to work as a defense for Fraill, who has three children and could face up to two years in prison.

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