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The Viktor Bout “juror pledge” [“I will not do research on the internet”]

Monday, October 24, 2011
posted by Douglas Keene

It is frankly amazing that this modest but important step forward hasn’t gotten more attention.  When Judge Shira A. Scheindlin of Federal District Court in Manhattan said she would have jurors sign a pledge to avoid internet research in the Viktor Bout trial, we paid attention. The New York Times quoted Judge Scheindlin:

““I am keenly aware that there are convictions set aside all over the country when we learn later during deliberations a juror looked up the keyword or the key name,” the judge said at the hearing, held this month. “We in the judiciary have been discussing this.”

A few moments later, Judge Scheindlin told the lawyers that she would write a pledge that jurors might be required to sign, promising that they would not turn to the Web to look up Mr. Bout or anything related to his trial until it was over.

Those who signed the pledge, Judge Scheindlin said, would be subject to perjury charges if they broke the agreement.”

Jurors researching cases on the internet have been a thorn in the side of the justice system for years. The act of researching and bringing information back to fellow jurors (resulting in mistrial) has been called the “Google mistrial”. The problem has gotten so pervasive, a judge in Minnesota has begun a single-subject blog called Jurors Behaving Badly .

While many papers covered the announcement that Judge Scheindlin was going to require a “juror pledge”, no one seems to have published the actual pledge itself. A widely circulated AP press release was published extensively as the trial opened, all it said was that the pledge had been signed under penalty of perjury.

“Twelve jurors and three alternates were chosen Tuesday during a daylong process. U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin required all of them to sign a first-of-its-kind juror pledge, in which they promised not to research any of the issues or parties involved in the trial on the Internet. The pledge contained a signature line after the words: “Signed under penalty of perjury.””

This is a “first of its kind” pledge on a topic that has been written about extensively–with many recommendations for wording. We are grateful to the writer on Twitter who provided us with the actual pledge (thanks @kathilynnaustin).

Here is the actual wording of the juror pledge in the Viktor Bout trial:

I agree to follow all of the Court’s preliminary instructions, including the Court’s specific instructions relating to Internet use and communications with others about the case. I agree that during the duration of this trial, I will not conduct any research into any of the issues or parties involved in this trial. Specifically, I will not use the Internet to conduct any research into any of the issues or parties involved in this trial. I will not communicate with anyone about the issues or parties in this trial, and I will not permit anyone to communicate with me. I further agree that I will report any violations of the Court’s instructions immediately.

Signed under penalty of perjury. 



(Sign and Print)

Dated: New York, New York

October 11, 2011

Will it work? Or, as some say, will it simply put the idea in jurors’ heads to go do some internet research perhaps finding this transcript submitted by the US Government into evidence? We’ll have to wait and see. But jurors are already doing research and it is simply an automatic act for many to search the internet for information. Research points toward Judge Scheindlin being spot on.

We don’t think it’s gone far enough, but it’s a healthy start. The next steps include a clear statement of the potential penalties for juror misconduct. Not that we want to see people going to jail, but it’s useful for them to appreciate the full importance of their behavior.

Perhaps a signed pledge (under penalty of perjury) will alert them to not research the case front and center for jurors as they proceed through trial. Or at least, imbue them with a full appreciation for the importance of their agnostic role.

We hope so.



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