Guilty by Google

When a 19th-century era legal system encounters 21st-century technology, the results can be criminal. Cringe has the verdict in hand.

A judge enters a courtroom.

"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, you are hereby instructed to ignore all technological innovations of the past 25 years. In fact, ignore everything newer than the rotary phone. No, wait, make that the telegraph. Or the printing press. Scrolls and parchment? We hereby ban goose quills. Do any of you know how to read? If so, you are now excused."

Pretty stupid, eh? But that's where we could be headed. According to a story in Tuesday's New York Times, a judge in a federal drug trial declared a mistrial last week after he learned that nine of the jurors had Googled information about the case.

"We were stunned," said the defense lawyer, Peter Raben, who was told by the jury that he was on the verge of winning the case. "It's the first time modern technology struck us in that fashion, and it hit us right over the head."

The juror who'd originally told Judge William J. Zloch she'd been guilty of Googling had discovered information about the case Zloch had specifically excluded. When he found out eight others had done the same thing, he 86'd the entire trial, eight weeks in.

(My question is, what was wrong with the other three jurors?)

Meanwhile in Arkansas, a building products company called Stoam Holdings is disputing a US$12.6 million judgment against it because juror Johnathan Powell tweeted from inside the courtroom as the decision was announced. To wit:

"So Johnathan, what did you do today? Oh nothing really, I just gave away TWELVE MILLION DOLLARS of somebody else's money."

The company's attorneys are pushing the idea that Powell was "predisposed toward giving a verdict that would impress his audience." Yeah. I buy that. I always make multi-million-dollar decisions just to wow my tweeps.

Apparently, the legal industry is finally waking up to the digital revolution. But what has changed, exactly? Just speed and convenience.

There was nothing in the past that could stop a determined juror from going to the library or the county courthouse and researching a case, aside from the judge's admonitions against doing it. Google is no different, it's just a lot more convenient. And when it's on your cell phone, you don't even have to leave the jury box.

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Robert X. Cringely

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