Using Facebook in jury selection

Kari Chisholm FacebookTwitterWebsite

At latest count, there are now 1.7 million Oregonians on Facebook - including 1.2 million over 30, and 515,000 over 50. 

So it's no surprise that it's become a tool in the courts - jilted spouses with proof of infidelity to moron crooks posing with stolen goods and bragging about crimes in status updates. 

But there's one development here in Oregon, reported recently in the Wall Street Journal, that seems a bit troubling: using Facebook in jury selection.

Josh Marquis, district attorney of Clatsop County in Oregon, did background searches on Facebook to help pick a jury for a penalty trial last summer to determine if a convicted murderer should get the death penalty. He was looking for clues on how potential jurors might feel about the defendant, a man who killed a couple as a teenager in 1988. The jury imposed the death penalty.

Now, I can understand why prosecutors and defense attorneys would look for any clue they could find to get an edge on the other side. And I can imagine that the details learned might prove useful. 

I was a potential juror in a product liability case last year.  When I mentioned that I was a blogger, none of the lawyers blinked. But when I said that I blogged at BlueOregon, the judge's head snapped up, and the defense attorney made a show of striking my name off his list. 

But I blog in public. The whole point is to participate in the public sphere. I have no expectation of privacy when it comes to what I write on BlueOregon.

On Facebook, regardless of privacy settings, the expectation is that you're sharing with friends and family. And it seems a bit untoward for officers of the court to be eavesdropping. 

And there's a reasonable argument that the "data" obtained may be faulty. After all, if all that's public is a list of "likes", an incomplete and inaccurate picture can form. You don't have to look any further than any prominent politician's Facebook page to find critical comments - comments that can only be made if the critic "likes" that politician. 

A similar argument was made in the WSJ story:

"I don't think we should abandon that [voir dire] system in favor of Internet snooping," said Jason Schultz, co-director of the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, law school. "There are a number people who post who they want to be, as opposed to who they are."

What do you think? Should prosecutors and defense lawyers be researching potential jurors through Facebook?

  • (Show?)

    Back in the day, if you were on a party line you could not expect any privacy from rubbernecking neighbours and kept you private communications for in person or via the post. Today, being online, one should not expect any privacy and should use discretion when on line. Regardless, what many say online is not an objective window into the characters participating in an online dialogue or making comments as the license to be poseurs is freely taken.

  • (Show?)

    I think the only sane policy is to expect that any message leaving your computer could potentially go anywhere. Never send something out that you'd have a problem with seeing in the newspaper - or somewhere else on line.

  • (Show?)

    I am hard pressed to see why we should let them research facebook for purposes of voir dire.

    removing potential biases is a noble goal, but far too often I suspect lawyers just use it as an excuse to find jurors with the most favorable bias towards their side.

    When jurors start being treated like Supreme Court nominees before the Senate Judiciary Committee, I think it's time for a change to the system.

    The line between wanting to win and finding justice seems blurry in a lot of cases.

    • (Show?)

      The term "voir dire" means "to speak the truth." Sadly, many people do not do this on voir dire. Here in Missouri there are dozens of cases where courts have overturned verdicts because people lied on voir dire about having prior judgments. Courts in Missouri now mandate that any challenge to a juror be made at the time the jury is picked, and lawyers are given the venire's information 24 hours before trial so that they can be run through "Casenet" the state's databse of court actions. Running them through Facebook also seems logical. People often identify their political party affiliation as well as information about their religious beliefs on Facebook. If a juror came in and said they could be fair to one of my clients, but they were affiliated with various "legal reform" groups on Facebook, it might give me an edge in knocking off someone who was clearly antagonistic to my client and who was dishonest about their intent.

      Just my two cents; that may be overvalued.

  • (Show?)

    If I had enough time during voir dire I would do it. Voir dire in my trials tends to last only a couple of hours. However, if I had an overnight to consider the jury pool, I would surely use facebook and other tools. It seems like a prudent thing to do.

  • (Show?)

    You know, I'm not sure how I feel about this. It seems weirdly intrusive, but as some have noted above, nothing you put out on the internet is ever truly private.

    If the second quote you provided is true, then attorneys are in for a rude shock or two when members of a jury vote differently than they had hoped. Also, if both sides use it, then there is a rough symmetry.

    I'm not coming up with a compelling reason to not check Facebook, so unless that's all your attorney uses, then I don't see a huge problem. Except, again, for that creepy government agent checking over your opinions feeling. Is that wishy-washy enough?

    There is one plus side -- if it kept me from having to spend time in the courtroom with Josh Marquis I would be all in favor of it.

  • (Show?)

    With all the different type of databases that store our information out there I think we need to watch this very closely.

    Would you want a lawyer with access to a voter file database striking jurors because they belong to a certain political party?

    Then again, a highly profitable venture would an online database company that gathers information on people and sells access to the information to lawyers and firms so they can access it during the voir dire process.

  • (Show?)

    The core intent of voir dire is to search for and expose potential biases among jurors. As more and more of what people do and say goes online, I don't see how you can fulfill that core intent without considering online activity.

  • (Show?)

    I was once in the jury pool for a death penalty case, and got seated for voir dire I was asked what I did for a living. I told them I was a public safety community organizer for a local non-profit and I interacted with the police on a regular basis. Defense and prosecution flipped a coin to see which got to bounce me...

    If someone has the expectation that they are communication solely with family and friends when publishing their personal preferences, foibles, opinions, purchasing preferences, etc. on Facebook then they are either naive or idiots. Prospective employers, college administrators, IRS investigators, folks separated by adoption, all kinds of people use FB to find out stuff about others. It makes perfect sense that attorneys would use it for voir dire, it helps them focus their challenges.

connect with blueoregon