Trial by Social Media: How Do You Find the Jury, Guilty or Not Guilty?

Trial by Social Media: How Do You Find the Jury, Guilty or Not Guilty?

Jacqui Taylor (Bournemouth University, Poole, UK) and Gemma Tarrant (Bournemouth University, Poole, UK)
Copyright: © 2019 |Pages: 12
DOI: 10.4018/IJCRE.2019070105


Social media makes it easier than ever to access information and opinions associated with criminal proceedings and viewing or discussing these pre-trial could reduce juror impartiality. This study explored whether viewing social media comments influenced mock juror verdicts. Seventy-two participants formed 12 six-person ‘mock juries'. All participants received information regarding a murder trial. Nine groups were exposed to social media comments, manipulated to be negative, positive or neutral towards the defendant. The remaining three groups only received trial information (control condition). Results showed that prior to group discussion, exposure to negatively-biased comments significantly increased the number of guilty verdicts, however these effects disappeared after group discussion. Therefore, although jurors may be unable to remain impartial before a trial, jury discussion can remove these prejudices, supporting previous group research. Further research is suggested where participants interact actively with social media, rather than passively viewing comments.
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The rapid growth in the use of the internet and social media have made it easier to gain access to information and opinions relating to the people involved in and the circumstances of legal proceedings. The influence of pre-trial publicity via traditional mass media has been thoroughly researched (e.g. Studebaker & Penrod, 1997), however, there is less research focusing on the influence of social media. Information is now instantly accessible and on a global scale, often making it difficult to avoid; indeed Bakhshay & Haney (2018) report on the difficulty finding jurors who have not been exposed to potentially biased extra-legal information.

The Role of the Jury

In the UK, juries are made up of twelve individuals aged between 18 and 70 selected randomly from the electoral register and their role is to arrive at a verdict on the charge facing the defendant by considering questions of fact and applying the law to these facts (Herring, 2018). This random selection is intended to ensure that the twelve members of the jury represent a wide range of individuals in society. Every individual who is charged with a criminal offence within the European Union has the right to a fair trial by an impartial jury, under the Human Rights Act (1998). An impartial juror is free from bias and prejudice and is free from the influence of knowledge acquired outside of the courtroom (Surette, 1998). Pre-trial publicity surrounding criminal investigations can potentially destroy a defendant’s rights to a fair trial and if a court decides that the jury is prejudiced due to exposure to pre-trial publicity, proceedings may be adjourned or there may be a re-trial. Jurors are instructed that they are to decide the case based solely on the evidence presented within the courtroom, and that they must not conduct any independent research or discuss the case with any other person outside of the courtroom until deliberations are complete (Judicial Conference Committee, 2012). Mock jury studies involve participants acting as jurors and are used to research aspects of the judicial system where it is not possible or ethical to conduct research using jurors involved in real trials. Although mock jury studies have contributed much to the understanding of the judicial system, they have received some criticism relating to low ecological validity (O’Connell, 1988). However, a recent review argues that they can produce valid and reliable findings (Bornstein, Golding, Neuschatz, Kimbrough, Reed, Magyarics, & Luecht, 2017).

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