Two years ago, we anticipated a growing problem with jurors who disregard trial judges’ instructions concerning Internet use. In July 2011, we reported on the first known prosecution of a juror in Great Britain for Internet-related misconduct. Since then, a Florida judge sentenced a Sarasota County juror to three days in jail for criminal contempt. In that case, the juror contacted a civil defendant on Facebook during jury selection and then bragged about his subsequent dismissal after having been seated on the jury. One month later, a New Jersey court found a jury foreman guilty of criminal contempt. In that case, the juror was required to pay a $500 fine for conducting online research into possible penalties the defendant would face if convicted on drug charges.
Kansas has now followed suit. On May 20, 2013, a court in Topeka found James Reeder guilty of criminal contempt for posting online comments while serving as a juror in a murder trial. The trial involved Anceo Stovall, one of nine defendants charged with felony murder and robbery in connection with the shooting death of a Kansas attorney and the wounding of her companion. Stovall also faced charges for unrelated crimes, including burglary of a vehicle and aggravated robbery of a co-defendant. Throughout the month-long trial, the trial judge instructed jurors not to “seek out and read any media accounts” about the crime or the trial.
Reeder didn’t heed the instruction. Soon after the jury began deliberating, Reeder visited the Topeka Capital-Journal’s website and read an article about the case. On July 21, Reeder posted a comment to the site using the pseudonym “BePrepared.” In response to another commenter, Reeder wrote, “Trust me that’s all they got in their little world, as you, I have been there. Remember the pukes names they will do it for ever [sic].”
Three days later, the jury announced that it could not reach a verdict on nine counts related to the felony murder. On the unrelated charges, Stovall was found guilty of aggravated robbery and not guilty of burglary. He requested a new trial on the robbery charge. Among other things, Stovall alleged juror misconduct based on evidence that Reeder had reviewed and commented on trial-related news in violation of the judge’s orders. As a result, Stovall’s robbery conviction was overturned and his motion for new trial granted. Months later, Stovall entered a plea deal and was sentenced to almost 11 years in prison.
Reeder appeared in court last month for his contempt hearing, arguing that his online post had not caused any harm. In one sense, his argument had appeal. The jury failed to reach a verdict on nine charges, so the case was going to be retried regardless. Additional costs for retrying the robbery charge would have been marginal. On the other hand, it was at least possible that Reeder’s misconduct had prevented the jury from reaching a unanimous decision on every count.
The trial judge didn’t care either way. In her view, “[t]here is great harm that results when someone in Mr. Reeder’s position of great trust violates in this way.” Having found the juror guilty of indirect criminal contempt, the court ordered him to pay a $1,000 fine or spend three days in jail. No doubt, the trial judge intends to send a message: jurors like “BePrepared” should be prepared to follow her instructions on Internet use or deal with the consequences.