By Jo-Ellan Dimitrius, Ph.D., Amy Singer, Ph.D. and Diana Greninger
Jury selection for Jodi Arias sentencing phase began this Monday in Arizona. Given this case’s publicity, social media has once again come into question. As citizens, we must ask ourselves, is it possible social media is affecting our jury system? Are defendants in these high publicity trials in fact getting a fair and impartial jury of peers? How can attorneys select a panel of impartial jurors once the case has been broadcasted to the world? Is social media affecting witness testimony or any other aspects of a trial?
It has come to light that many of the defendant’s witnesses have refused to testify as they have received death threats. Death threats can be qualified as witness intimidation, which is illegal in the United States. Yet, it is becoming more prevalent amongst high publicity cases.
Judge Sherry Stephens ruled that she will not allow live streaming of the sentencing trial, live tweeting or Facebooking by reporters this time around, in part to protect the few witnesses who are still willing to testify for Arias. Yet, because of the first amendment, she cannot exclude reporters and their cameras from the courtroom, she can simply require that they wait until the verdict comes out to publish video taken of the court proceedings.
This time around, the defense has also asked for access to potential jurors’ twitter accounts as a way to avoid stealth jurors. However, given this information has been made public, who is to say such potential stealth jurors won’t delete their past tweets or social media posts and get themselves empaneled despite having already made a decision about Arias’ outcome? Who is to say someone won’t finagle a way to share sensitive courtroom information with the general public on a delayed social media feed during jury selection or even during the trial?
While the judge has ruled no live video streams should be made available, we can be certain reporters and even spectators will be creating delayed tweets, Facebook posts, blogs and articles about proceedings. Among these posts, some will be truthful but most will not. Such information can have quite an impact on jury selection, which is expected to last three weeks.
In this case, potential jurors, spectators, reporters and the public have yet to see how someone’s life can be impacted by what is said or shared online. There is no social filter for what people post online. It is so easy to exaggerate or put one’s own slant on a courtroom’s daily events knowing they will not be held accountable in some fashion. Most people don’t realize tweets on their personal account can be shared and produce such a life or death effect. Most people simply relish in the fact their post or tweet got shared or retweeted, rather than on the end result.
This trial is about a single issue: life or death. How should this decision be made? By social media or a by a fair trial? Is social media becoming an outlet for people to release their anger? Who in their right mind makes death threats to witnesses? Are these people’s posts and threats affecting the outcome of life vs. death if witnesses are afraid to testify?
We all have opinions, life experiences and general beliefs that affect our decision making but when it comes down to the jurors who will be deciding this case, and whether Jodi Arias should live or die, it is imperative for the empaneled jury to rely solely on what is coming from their heart and what they have heard in court rather than what they heard from the outside. An outside that always thinks it knows all the facts, but truly it does not. Anyone involved in a trial can tell you that the media rarely depicts the truth.
Because of that component, it is understandable why judge Stephens has made the decisions she has and is not releasing the supplemental juror questionnaire nor allowing live news coverage of this trial until a verdict is reached. Her decision is similar to the Canadian jury media system which allows no coverage to be shown until a verdict is reached.
However, she cannot control everything. Information will be leaked. The reporters and spectators will write their stories, tweet their tweets and write their blogs. They will simply do it on a delayed feed. They might write a blog every night about what is happening, how Arias is coming across, how she is dressed, etc. Jurors will have to be extra diligent not to access any social media or news reports. Judge Stephens and the attorneys will surely have to monitor the selected panel’s social media activity if they are not being sequestered.
Judge Stevens has taken some steps in the right direction, but will it be enough? Are cell phones and lap tops being confiscated upon entering the courthouse as it is often done in federal courthouses? Perhaps that would keep folks from taking down quotes verbatim and posting them in a delayed schedule, despite her rulings. In what other ways do you think social media will affect this trial? Join the conversation.