Facebook: Friend or Foe? Protecting the Right To A Fair Trial In A World Dominated By Social Media

by Butler Snow LLP

In an interview before his Spartans were slated to play Duke in the Final Four, Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo unabashedly stated, “I don’t think social media is beneficial to any human being on the planet.”

Tennessee Supreme Court Justice William C. Koch, Jr. very well may agree with that sentiment after presiding over State v. Smith, 418 S.W.3d 38 (Tenn. 2013), in which the defendant challenged his right to a fair trial after a juror communicated over Facebook with the State’s assistant medical examiner during trial.

Following the death of woman with whom he had been living, William Darelle Smith was charged with first degree murder. As part of its case, the State offered the testimony of Dr. Adele Lewis, the assistant medical examiner who performed the autopsy on the victim’s body. While the trial itself proceeded without incident, approximately one hour after jury deliberations began, the trial judge received the following e-mail from Dr. Lewis about communications she had had with a juror following her testimony:

Judge Norman,

 I can’t send you actual copies of the emails since Facebook is blocked from my computer here at work, but here is a transcript:

 Scott Mitchell: “A-dele!! I thought you did a great job today on the witness stand…I was in the jury…not sure if you recognized me or not!! You really explained things so great!!”

 Adele Maurer Lewis: “I was thinking that was you. There is a risk of a mistrial if that gets out.”

 Scott Mitchell: “I know…I didn’t say anything about you…there are 3 of us on the jury from Vandy and one is a physician (cardiologist) so you may know him as well. It has been an interesting case to say the least.”

 I regret responding to his email at all, but regardless I felt that this was a fairly serious violation of his responsibilities as a juror and that I needed to make you and [G]eneral Miller aware. I did not recognize the above-referenced cardiologist or any other jurors.

 Adele Lewis, MD

State v. Smith, 2015 Tenn. Crim. App. LEXIS 5, *6-*7 (Tenn. Crim. App. Jan. 7, 2015).

Dr. Lewis had trained at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, and several of the jurors, including Juror Mitchell, worked at Vanderbilt. During voir dire, however, none of the jurors were ever asked if they knew Dr. Lewis.

The trial judge informed the attorneys of Dr. Lewis’s e-mail, and soon thereafter the jury returned to the courtroom, announcing that it found Smith guilty of first degree murder. The trial court excused the jury, and defense counsel immediately asked whether the court would question Juror Mitchell about his communications with Dr. Lewis. The court declined, stating that it was “satisfied” with the e-mail it received from Dr. Lewis. Id. at 44. The trial judge then sentenced Smith to life in prison.

Following sentencing, Smith moved for a new trial, claiming that he was denied a fair trial because the trial court forbade him from questioning Juror Mitchell about his exchange with Dr. Lewis. The trial court denied the motion for a new trial without comment.

Smith raised the issue again on appeal. On appeal, the Court of Criminal Appeals characterized the Facebook exchange as “mere interactions” between a juror and a third person, and upheld the trial court’s decision not to question Juror Mitchell. The court reasoned that “[t]he trial  [9] court has the discretion to determine whether a jury has acted impartially.” State v. Smith, 2012 Tenn. Crim. App. LEXIS 165 (Tenn. Crim. App. Mar. 2, 2012).

Smith then appealed his case to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which was presented with the question: Was Smith’s right to an impartial jury compromised because the trial court did not hold a hearing after discovering that a juror was not only acquainted with one of the State’s witnesses, but had sent the witness a communication through Facebook during trial, complimenting her on her testimony? The Tennessee Supreme Court answered that question in the affirmative, concluding that the trial court had erred in refusing to hold a hearing about the communications between Juror Mitchell and Dr. Lewis and remanded the case. 418 S.W.3d at 50.

In articulating the Court’s decision, Justice Koch noted that the “right to a trial by jury in both civil and criminal cases is a foundational right protected by both the federal and state constitutions.” Id. at 44. Consequently, “[w]hen a trial court learns that an extra-judicial communication between a juror and a third-party has occurred, the court must take steps to assure that the juror has not been exposed to extraneous information or has not been improperly influenced.” Id. at 46. According to the Court, in most circumstances, the appropriate first step is to conduct a hearing in open court in the presence of the defendant to place the facts in  [14] the record and to determine on the record whether cause exists to find that the juror should be disqualified. Id.

Because the trial court failed to hold such an evidentiary hearing, the Supreme Court concluded that the proper remedy was to remand the case. Id. at 49. Accordingly, the Court remanded the case for a hearing as to whether Juror Mitchell’s Facebook communication with Dr. Lewis disqualified him from continuing to serve on Smith’s jury. Id. According to the Court, at such hearing, questioning should cover (1) the subject matter of the contact, (2) to whom it was directed, (3) the medium of the exchange, (4) whether any responses were received, and (5) the content of the communications. Id. at 49 (internal citations omitted).

Following remand, a hearing was held during which Juror Mitchell and Dr. Lewis testified regarding the nature of both their relationship and their Facebook communications. After presentation of the testimony and consideration of the factors previously set forth by the Supreme Court, the trial court again denied Smith a new trial. Once again, Smith appealed to the Court of Criminal Appeals. State v. Smith, 2015 Tenn. Crim. App. LEXIS 5, *1-*2 (Tenn. Crim. App. Jan. 7, 2015). On appeal, the Court of Criminal Appeals finally concluded that the State sufficiently rebutted any presumption of prejudice raised by Juror Mitchell’s extrajudicial Facebook communications with Dr. Lewis and affirmed the judgment of the trial court.

Although the eventual outcome of the case remained the same, the procedural path of State v. Smith evidences the degree to which modern technology and social media can impact the most foundational elements of any case. While State v. Smith involved first degree murder, an individual’s right to trial by jury equally applies in the civil context. 418 S.W.3d at 44. Furthermore, the American judicial system “depends upon public confidence in the jury’s verdict.” State v. Smith, 418 S.W.3d 38, 49-50 (Tenn. 2013). With almost-unlimited access to the internet and the rampant popularity of social media, individuals are connected like never before. While that virtual community, however, comes very real dangers to the integrity of the judicial system.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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