Nondisclosure of Juror Facebook Friendships: Cause for Retrial?

November 19, 2013

Tuesday, November 19, 2013, by Benjamin Szany
The dynamics between jurors and social media is not a new concern for the American judiciary. The legal system has dealt with jurors learning “facts” about their case from social media, jurors publishing insights regarding their case on social media, and jurors accessing social media in the courtroom during trial.
Recently, a defendant in Missouri challenged a juror non-disclosure of a Facebook friendship. The defendant, convicted on several sexual assault counts, filed a motion for a new trial. The trial court denied the motion, and the appeal went to the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Eastern District. The defendant claimed the juror, Rolfes, failed to disclose to the court the existence of a Facebook friendship between Rolfes and the victim’s mother, amounting to juror misconduct requiring a new trial.
During the jury selection process, Rolfes had acknowledged that he recognized the victim’s mother. When asked by the litigants about the nature of his relationship with the victim’s mother, he responded that he knew the victim’s mother from high school seventeen years earlier, but his only recent interaction had been a brief exchange of pleasantries.

[T]he defendant argued that Rolfes’s failure to inform the court of the Facebook friendship between himself and the victim’s mother amounted to juror misconduct

In his motion for a new trial, the defendant argued that Rolfes had failed to disclose that he was also Facebook friends with the victim’s mother. This Facebook friendship between Rolfes and the victim’s mother had begun several months prior to the trial. While the victim’s mother had “defriended” Rolfes just prior to the trial, the defendant argued that Rolfes’s failure to inform the court of the Facebook friendship between himself and the victim’s mother amounted to juror misconduct because Rolfes was asked about his relationship with the victim’s mother during the jury selection process.
The Court of Appeals determined first that Rolfes had not mischaracterized his relationship with the victim’s mother. Instead, the Court established that Rolfes’ Facebook interaction with the victim’s mother had consisted of general pleasantries alone, which was entirely in line with what Rolfes had described during jury selection questioning. Secondly, the Court determined that Rolfes was not asked a question which specifically required him to reveal the Facebook friendship. For these reasons, the Court found the trial court’s denial of the defendant’s motion proper.
The defendant’s transfer request to the Missouri Supreme Court was denied just last month.
This verdict is in line with those of several Kentucky and Alabama cases dealing with questions of juror bias and Facebook. More specifically, Kentucky and Alabama courts decided that a Facebook friendship between a juror and an individual close to the case (litigant, close family member of a litigant, or witness) alone do not create a presumption of juror bias. The courts in those states require some proof of actual bias – that is, the court requires that the party claiming bias demonstrate that the juror’s state of mind was actually prejudiced against the party, and not just that the circumstances of the case indicate that a bias could have been present.
 
For a Supreme Court opinion discussing implied bias (in non-social media contexts) see McCleskey v. Kemp. In this case, the Court dismissed the defendant’s appeal because the defendant’s evidence could only establish that the Georgia legal system disproportionately issued death penalty sentences to black defendants, and the evidence did not establish that any bias actually led the jury to sentence this particular defendant.
More information on how lawyers can approach social media issues in cases can be found here.