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Jury misconduct has created a legal migraine for many attorneys who say that jurors are increasingly ignoring judges’ orders and trying to investigate and solve crimes on their own. This renegade behavior, they say, ranges from jurors independently investigating crime scenes to researching legal issues on the Internet to lying on questionnaires just to get on a jury. And their curiosity is costing the courts time and money. In recent months, a murder conviction in Virginia was overturned because a juror was caught buying newspapers at a 7-11, the Colorado Supreme Court threw out a death penalty because jurors were reading the Bible and a New York judge overturned a bribery conviction because a juror was caught reading a newspaper. Lawyers blame this misbehavior on several factors, including the Internet, Court TV and the slew of crime-related television shows. “I think a lot of these jurors think they’re now qualified in ways of the law to take matters into their own hands,” said trial attorney George Bochetto, who believes jury misconduct “is getting worse.” “The only solution is to have an expanded voir dire session,” said Bochetto of Philadelphia’s Bochetto & Lentz. “Most of this could get rooted out if counsel were given more latitude during voir dire and judges don’t like to do it because it takes too much time,” he said. The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts does not keep jury misconduct statistics, nor does the National Center for State Courts, though it has reported that jury misconduct is an ongoing problem. In the Virginia murder case mistrial, Commonwealth v. Gerardo Lara, No. CR57040 (Prince William Co., Va., Cir. Ct.), defense attorney Jon Shields, a solo practitioner from Manassas, Va., caught the juror buying newspapers. He had stopped at a 7-11 to buy a paper to see the media’s coverage of his trial when he saw the juror walking out of the store with newspapers tucked under her arm. Shields requested a mistrial that same day, but the judge denied his request after the juror denied buying papers. Nearly two hours later, the jury convicted Shields’ client, Gerardo Lara, and sentenced him to 40 years in prison. The next morning, Shields went to the 7-11, requested the surveillance tape and a receipt, and brought them back to court: The juror had bought the Washington Post and the Potomac News. A mistrial was granted on April 22. Shields said the juror has pleaded guilty to contempt and could be ordered to pay for the entire first trial — at least $30,000. “We don’t know if she even read the newspapers … but she may have bought them during the entire trial and influenced the jurors,” said Shields, adding, “if we can’t trust jurors to find with all deliberate good faith a just result in the case, we may as well bag the system.” The juror’s attorney, Amy Ashworth, could not be reached for comment. INTERNET WORRIES John Petrullo of Buchalter Nemer Fields & Younger in Los Angeles said his biggest jury foe has been the Internet. In the last two years, he has had about five trials where jurors researched legal issues on the Internet. “We had one case last summer in Philadelphia where the first day of trial, one of the jurors sent a note to the judge saying he noticed that he’s learning more about my client from the Internet and his own sources than from attorneys in court,” said Petrullo, who requested the juror be dismissed, but the judge denied the request. Similar conduct, however, led to the mistrial last June of a whistleblower case in California where a juror accessed the Internet, Petrullo said. Petrullo said he feels he’s at the mercy of judges, who are responsible for reminding jurors about avoiding the media and talking about the case. On two occasions in high-profile cases, he said he has hired private investigators to do background checks on some jurors. But for the most part, he said, he trusts jurors. Paul DeGroth, an assistant prosecutor in Passaic County, N.J., said he’s continually battling what he calls the “CSI effect” in the courtroom. He said television shows have influenced the thought process of jurors, who now demand to see evidence like DNA and fingerprints, even when it’s not necessary. “I make it part of my opening now to say, ‘This is not CSI. This is not Law & Order,’” said DeGroth. “Some of the jurors are coming back with questions that confound me … .’Can we have this? Can we do this?’ I tell them, ‘If it’s not at trial, no, you can’t have it.’” Attorney Vince Aprile, a member of the American Bar Association Criminal Justice Section who counsels attorneys on jury selection, said there are some red flags to look for to detect jury misconduct. For example, he said, if a juror is continually asking a judge questions, that’s an indicator of a possible bad juror. He also advises lawyers to contact jurors after a trial to learn about possible misconduct. Aprile of Lynch, Cox, Gilman & Mahan in Louisville, Ky., also encouraged attorneys to empower the jury to police itself. And he discouraged lawyers from asking jurors during voir dire about things like their bumper stickers or favorite shows. Instead, he said, lawyers should ask jurors to share an experience related to the case. In a self-defense case, he said, a good question would be, “Tell me the most frightening experience you have been through.” Once jurors start talking about their lives — how they acted and what they thought — “it’s tremendous,” he said. Lawyers often think that a certain set of questions will catch bad jurors: “They want a magic bullet that they can use over and over again. They really don’t exist.”

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