New trial over sleeping, tweeting jurors

2011-12-09 09:08
Little Rock - A state Supreme Court on Thursday tossed out a death row inmate's murder conviction and said he deserves a new trial because one juror slept and another tweeted during court proceedings.

Erickson Dimas-Martinez's attorneys had appealed his 2010 murder conviction in Arkansas because a juror sent tweets despite the judge's instruction not to post on the internet or communicate with anyone about the case. The lawyers also complained that another juror slept.

In one tweet, juror Randy Franco wrote: "Choices to be made. Hearts to be broken...We each define the great line." Less than an hour before the jury announced its verdict, he tweeted: "It's over."

Other tweets by Franco made passing references to the trial, with posts such as, "The coffee sucks here" and "Court. Day 5. here we go again."

The court said Franco, known as Juror 2 in court documents, violated general instructions to not discuss the case.

Explanation

Before opening arguments, the judge said: "Just remember, never discuss this case over your cellphone... and don't Twitter anybody about this case."

Franco didn't immediately return a message left on Thursday, but he has defended his tweets in the past.

"None of my texts indicated anything about the trial," he told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette last year. "I hadn't made up my mind."

That explanation seemed to satisfy a lower court judge, but it didn't sit well with the state's highest court.

"Because of the very nature of Twitter as an... online social media site, Juror 2's tweets about the trial were very much public discussions. Even if such discussions were one-sided, it is in no way appropriate for a juror to state musings, thoughts, or other information about a case in such a public fashion," Associate Justice Donald Corbin wrote.

The justices also used the case to point out that a wide array of juror misconduct can come into play when jurors have unrestricted access to their cellphones during a trial.

"Most mobile phones now allow instant access to a myriad of information. Not only can jurors access Facebook, Twitter, or other social media sites, but they can also access news sites that might have information about a case," Corbin wrote.

Trial specifics

He also asked a panel to consider whether to limit jurors' access to cellphones during trials.

Janice Vaughn, who argued Dimas-Martinez's case in front of the state Supreme Court in November, said the case will likely bring about new rules governing jurors' cellphone usage.

"It's not about your right to tweet or be on Facebook," said Felecia Epps, who teaches criminal law at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

"It's about protecting the right of the person who may end up behind bars or end up losing a significant amount of money in a civil case."

An assistant attorney general had argued that the tweets were merely about the juror's feelings and not about specifics of the trial. Aaron Sadler, a spokesperson for the attorney general, said that the state hasn't decided what it will do next.

"We are currently reviewing the Court's decision and will confer with the local prosecutor on next steps," Sadler said in an e-mail.

Courts in Arkansas and around the country are grappling with problems caused by jurors using Twitter, Facebook or other online services during trials.

In 2009, a Washington County judge dismissed an attempt to overturn a $12.6m judgment against a building materials company, despite the firm's complaint that a juror's Twitter posts showed bias.

Dimas-Martinez, now 26, was sent to death row for robbing and shooting a teenager after a party in northwest Arkansas in 2006. Prosecutors said Dimas-Martinez held 17-year-old Derrick Jefferson at gunpoint and demanded his money before he shot him.
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