In State v. Dellinger, the West Virginia Supreme Court was asked whether a juror’s failure to disclose her social-networking “connections” to the criminal defendant during voire dire was a sufficient basis to overturn the defendant’s felony conviction. The court held that the juror’s failure to disclose that she was “MySpace friends” with the defendant, a Deputy Sheriff” violated the defendant’s constitutional right to trial by a fair and impartial jury.
Immediately following the verdict, the defendant’s attorney informed the judge of possible juror misconduct and subsequently filed a motion for a new trial. The judge conducted an investigation into the allegations and determined that, one week before the trial, the juror sent the following message via MySpace to the defendant:
Hey, I dont know you very well But I think you could use some advice! I havent been in your shoes for a long time but I can tell ya that God has a plan for you and your life. You might not understand why you are hurting right now but when you look back on it, it will make perfect sence. I know it is hard but just remember that God is perfect and has the most perfect plan for your life. Talk soon!
The juror and the defendant became “friends” on MySpace. When asked whether any of the potential jurors had a business or social relationship with the defendant, the juror did not acknowledge their “friendship.” The defendant claimed that he did not realize that the juror and his MySpace friend were one and the same until just before the end of the trial.
During trial, the juror posted on her MySpace page, “Just got home from Court and getting ready to get James and Head to church! Then back to court in the morning!” She also described her “mood” as “blah.” This message was not available for viewing on her MySpace page by all of her approximately 130 MySpace “friends,” including the defendant.
During the court’s investigation, the juror testified that, although she was “friends” on MySpace with the defendant, they had never had a face-to-face conversation and did not have a close personal relationship. She testified that he was “[j]ust somebody I knew” and that “he’s a cop in the county; everybody knows all the cops.”
When asked about why she did not respond to the voire dire question of whether she knew the defendant, the juror replied:
Bad judgment, I guess. I just didn’t feel like I really knew him. I didn’t know him personally. I’ve never, never talked to him. And I just felt like, you know, when he asked if you knew him personally or if he ever came to your house or have you been to his house, we never did. So I just didn’t feel like I really did know him. . . . That’s why I didn’t say anything.
This case offers an important lesson about the significant difference between the perceptions of social-media users about the impact of their online activities and the legal impact of their activities. Cases like this certainly do seem to support model jury instructions that specifically address social media and online activity, as well as possibly incorporating similar questions in the voir-dire process.
State v. Dellinger, No. 3573 (W.Va. Supr. Ct. June 3, 2010)
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