Juror's imprudent iPhone search causes mistrial

Juror hears that defendant in manslaughter case acted prudently. Needing to be sure what "prudent" meant, he checks on is phone and a mistrial is declared.

Chris Matyszczyk
2 min read

A jury is meant to be a trial by your peers. I don't know about you, but most of my peers use iPhones. So why, you might ask, shouldn't they use them during a trial?

Well, because they might cause a mistrial.

It seems that there was a case in Florida featuring a man in his 60s who allegedly shot a 19-year-old. Was this merely an generational issue? Perhaps.

The two argued, according to the court papers, in a manner that might be classified as something out of the Clint Eastwood movie "Gran Torino." The papers tell of thrown beer bottles and lines such as "Go Back To Cuba," the latter uttered not by the shooter, but by the shot.

It really does sound sadly avoidable. Still, the shooter was indicted for murder and convicted of manslaughter. However, one important conjecture--both at jury instructions and during closing argument--gravitated around whether the elder gentleman's actions were "prudent."

You mean this Encarta? The Magna Encarta? CC Alessandro Vernet/Flickr

It seems that the jury foreperson was not entirely sure of prudence's definition. So he whipped out his iPhone and ascertained that prudence was all about acting as reasonably as the common person you see on a bus. I paraphrase.

I should note that the foreperson didn't perform his search in the jury room. Rather, he tried to remember the definition and then shared it with many of his fellow jurors.

The court at the time found that, though his donning a Zuckerbergian cloak and sharing compounded his misconduct, it wasn't enough to warrant a mistrial.

Because I know you'll need a break for a laugh at this point, might I tell you that he looked up the definition of prudence on Encarta?

Now let us resume. There is one painful snag with this story. Dictionaries are not allowed in jury rooms.

So the Court of Appeal of Florida felt it had no choice but to disagree with the trial court and order new proceedings in the case. The Court of Appeal declared: "We cannot say that the intrusion of the definition of 'prudent' into the jury deliberations did not affect the jury verdict."

The court added: "It has been a long-standing rule of law that jurors should not consider external information outside of the presence of the defendant, the state, and the trial court."

Perhaps there might be one or two of you who will find this thought-process touches the margins of dementia. Perhaps you might think it is hard enough for jurors to follow some of the jumbo legal mumbo dished out in court, following which, a judge peers over to them and offers a dumbed-down, English-for-dunces version.

Some might think that the foreperson, merely trying to discharge his duty fully, wanted to ensure that such a vital word in the trial as "prudent" was understood by all.

Could it be the Court of Appeal that was slightly injudicious here? Or even imprudent?