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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Should Judicial Twittering Be Allowed?

A student has asked me what I think of reporters being allowed to tweet in court.

It seems that a federal judge in Georgia has ruled that no one in his court - including reporters, may employ twitter while the court is in session.

Other judges, in other jurisdictions are being less restrictive and are not only allowing tweets, but cell phones and live blogging, as well!

I can imagine the cacophony of clicking and tsunami of sidelong glances among the hacks attending a highly controversial trial. To that extent, it might appear as a distraction for the jurors and for the learned counsels who are presenting their cases.

A recent high-profile case in Ottawa saw the mayor on trial for bribery. The judge allowed reporters to live-blog the proceedings.

But like the old argument about cameras in the court, the risk of legal grandstanding is less than it appears: any judge worth his robes will keep decorum and not let the technology disturb the proceedings.

More worrisome is whether jurors should be allowed to keep cellphones which would allow web surfing and tweets. A Scottish case was dismissed because the jurors kept sending messages to one another to discuss the case.

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My only experience as a juror was in the State of Maryland and the judge was extremely careful to make sure that we, the jury did not discuss the case amongst us or with our families when we went home for the evening. Not talking about the case was one of the most difficult things I had ever been asked to do in those pre-twitter days. Some old journalistic instincts kicked in, and I was eager to share this story but I kept quiet as the case was presented:

It involved a violent man who had thrown himself on the mercy of the court, claiming that he was too mentally ill to be sent to prison for serially threatening and beating his family and anyone who looked at him sideways. He admitted that he was extremely violent especially against his own family. He was clearly disturbed and the case revolved around dueling psychiatric assessments.

The Assistant District Attorney presented forensic evidence claiming he was sane; his lawyer (a public defender who seemed quite tenacious) presented counter arguments with equally qualified experts.

In the end, the jury was asked, who they believed? One piece of evidence that was overlooked (in my non-legal opinion, which gave him grounds for appeal) was a history severe drug abuse and motorcycle accidents. There was medical evidence that showed he suffered serious brain injuries and after which his propensity for violence increased. His wife and mother begged the court to find him insane to keep him away from them.

I was dismissed before the jury was sequestered so the decision was rendered without me. To my astonishment, the jury found him guilty (and sane) and he was sentenced to 8 years in a maximum security prison in Jessup, Maryland. He'll be out in 2012. I was hoping he would be found not guilty by reason of insanity. If he had, he'd get treatment in the Clifton T. Perkins State Hospital for the Criminally Insane and his wife and children would no longer be terrorized by him.

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