Time Magazine and several blogs have recently written about the problem of jurors doing Internet research on the trials they have been charged to decide. Jurors’ Internet research, as well as their writings on blogs and social networking websites, has led to several so-called "Google mistrials". As a result, courts across the country are looking for new ways to prevent jurors from improperly using information technology.
The most common response to this problem has been to include new jury instructions at the beginning of the trial. Wisconsin is among several states that have adopted jury instructions that specifically warn jurors not to do Internet research on the case and not to communicate with anyone about the trial via e-mail, text, blog, Twitter, or social networking website.
But few commentators have focused on why jurors seek additional information outside the courtroom or why they feel compelled to communicate with others about the case. Once selected, most jurors are motivated first and foremost by a desire to reach a just and fair verdict. Jurors are well aware of the weighty responsibility before them, and they work hard to understand the evidence and the court’s instructions. But when jurors feel that the evidence is incomplete or their instructions are unclear, jurors may choose to overlook the court’s instructions in order to fulfill their primary duty of reaching a well-informed decision.
In short, jurors do research outside the courtroom because they don’t feel like they receive enough information inside the courtroom. Almost all of the media reports of jurors’ Internet research mis-steps are related to the need for clarification or additional information about an important aspect of a case. So in addition to addressing the symptoms of jurors’ need for additional information (such as new jury instructions) other steps should address the root cause of the problem: incomplete information. Some states have implemented reforms along these lines, such as allowing jurors to ask questions of witnesses. Other proposals include allowing jurors to discuss the case with each other during recesses in the trial. In addition, litigants should endeavor to present juries with complete and satisfying stories that clearly and succinctly explain not only what happened, but also why their side deserves to win.