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Palm Beach County juror removed in handcuffs, faces contempt charge over Facebook posting

By Jane Musgrave - Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

In what is believed to be a first in Palm Beach County, a 24-year-old Boca Raton man faces contempt of court charges for posting comments on Facebook while serving as a juror.

People’s compulsion to use social media while serving on juries has raised concerns of lawyers and judges nationwide. But Alexander Sutton is believed to be the first juror in the county to face up to six months in jail for disobeying a judge’s blanket — and repeated — order to refrain from using the Internet to broadcast his views on a case he was deciding.

Sutton soon might not be alone.

Attorney Spencer Kuvin this week will ask a judge to find two other jurors engaged in similar conduct during another auto negligence case.

While it is unusual that three jurors sitting in two separate civil trials would be facing such accusations, Kuvin said the conduct is far from rare. “This is pervasive,” he said.

Other attorneys say they, too, have had trials spoiled by jurors who just can’t stop themselves from going online. In most cases, offenders are given stern lectures from judges — even jurors whose online obsessions forced mistrials.

Sutton, in contrast, was hauled from the courtroom in handcuffs on May 20 after one of the attorneys involved in the case discovered his Facebook rants and showed them to Circuit Judge Jack Cox. While an alternate juror was tapped and the trial continued, Cox ordered Sutton to return to court on June 20 to explain why he should not be held in contempt of court.

Exactly what Sutton wrote was not publicly available last week. The printout attorney Scott Smith presented Cox wasn’t in court records. Smith declined to share it. Sutton, who didn’t respond to requests for an interview, removed the comments from his Facebook page as Cox ordered.

When he is in trial, Smith said he regularly monitors comments jurors post on social media. Most jurors, he said, obey judges’ orders and don’t use their Facebook or Twitter accounts to comment on trials. Some, he said, will alert their online friends and followers that they are on a jury and some will even complain about it.

But, Smith said, Sutton’s comments went well beyond whining. “In addition to expressing general disdain about jury service, he made very specific comments about the case itself,” said Smith, who ultimately won $3,929 for a woman who was injured in a 2010 car crash. “The comments made it clear that he couldn’t be and never was fair and impartial.”

It appears the comments weren’t the only reason Cox treated Sutton harshly. In his order, Cox said that when questioned under oath about whether he had posted comments about the trial on Facebook, Sutton lied. By then, Cox was holding printouts of what the juror had written.

Unlike Smith, Kuvin said he doesn’t monitor jurors’ online activity. However, last month, after a trial ended with a verdict that was far less than what he believed his injured client deserved, he decided to check whether jurors posted any comments. To his surprise, he said, two had.

One juror, complained vigorously about being selected. “Got picked for a BOOOring 3-4 day trial,” she wrote on Facebook on the day she was selected. “This sucks!”

Another juror was far more verbose about his jury service, sending out several tweets a day during the trial that ended May 16. Mostly, he complained that jury service was a waste of time. “I wish I wasn’t a US citizen right now. I could give two (expletive) about jury duty,” he posted before he was selected.

But, Kuvin points to other comments, that call into question the juror’s ability to judge the case. While Kuvin said he was either giving his opening statement or calling his first witness, the juror wrote: “Taking a nap.” In another tweet that Kuvin said showed the man was biased against his client, he wrote: “Everyone is so money hungry that they’ll do anything for it.”

“Clearly these online comments show not only a disdain for the court system and jury service, but also show that they have prejudged the case before deliberations,” Kuvin wrote in a motion to Circuit Judge Janis Brustares Keyser. On Wednesday, he will ask her to bring all of the jurors in for questioning to determine if they knew of the comments and, if so, whether it affected their verdict.

Since Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media exploded in popularity, the court system has struggled with how to deal with their impact on jury trials. While courts have long warned jurors not to read or watch media accounts of a trial or do any of their own research, in 2010 the Florida Supreme Court revised jury instructions to include social media.

The instructions are emphatic: “You must not use electronic devices or computers to talk about this case, including tweeting, texting, blogging, emailing, posting information on a website or chat room, or any other means at all.” Further, they are told: “You must not disclose your thoughts about your jury service or ask for advice on how to decide any case.”

Such warnings are given repeatedly — from the time jurors assemble in a waiting room until they are sworn in. Most judges repeat a version of the instructions before releasing jurors on breaks, for lunch or at the end of the day.

Attorneys said they know most jurors probably violate court orders by talking to their spouses or close friends. However, they said, social media is different.

“It’s on steroids,” said Ian Goldstein, a criminal defense attorney. “If they have 1,000 friends on Facebook and they’re getting responses from 20 or 30 people, it’s concerning.”

A 2010 investigation by Reuters Legal found that in the previous decade, at least 90 verdicts nationally had been challenged over allegations of Internet-related juror misconduct. Judges granted new trials or overturned verdicts in 28 criminal and civil cases.

But, it noted, as did most attorneys, that many incidents are never detected. For instance, if jurors have privacy settings on their Facebook accounts, attorneys would never be able to read what they posted.

Some court-watchers have suggested taking cells phones away from jurors entirely. But, attorneys point out, that won’t stop jurors from posting comments when they leave the courthouse.

Still, Kuvin said, being deprived of cell phones might impress jurors with the importance of keeping their views about the trial off social media. Others, such as civil attorney Mariano Garcia, said stripping jurors of cell phones could have other undesirable consequences.

“If they have kids and jobs, they have to be connected in case of an emergency,” Garcia said. “If they don’t have their phones, they might spend more time worrying than paying attention to what’s happening during the trial.”

And, as a juror proved earlier this year, when it comes to ignoring a judge’s orders, people can be creative.

Delray Beach retiree Dennis DeMartin was held in contempt of court by Circuit Judge Jeffrey Colbath, who said DeMartin’s conduct forced him to throw out the DUI manslaughter conviction of Wellington polo mogul John Goodman. DeMartin was held in contempt after he revealed in self-published books that he hadn’t divulged his ex-wife’s DUI arrest before he was picked for the jury and conducted a drinking experiment during the trial to determine whether Goodman was impaired.

DeMartin is appealing a six-month jail sentence. Goodman is awaiting a new trial.

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