Arkansas death row inmate gets new trial because of tweets

LITTLE ROCK, Ark Thu Dec 8, 2011 3:36pm EST

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LITTLE ROCK, Ark (Reuters) - The Arkansas Supreme Court said on Thursday a death row inmate deserves a new trial because one juror tweeted during court proceedings.

Erickson Dimas-Martinez, 26, was convicted of the murder of Derrick Jefferson, 17, after a robbery in 2010 following a party in northwest Arkansas.

His attorneys appealed that conviction arguing that one juror slept and another one sent tweets although the judge had instructed jurors not to communicate with anyone about the case. The judge specifically instructed jurors not to post on the Internet.

But juror Randy Franco did. According to court documents, Franco tweeted on the day that "all evidence was submitted in the sentencing phase." The juror tweeted, "Choices to be made. Hearts to be broken. We each define the great line."

Franco tweeted several times during the case. Dimas-Martinez' attorneys brought the problem to the judge's attention. The judge then questioned Franco, who admitted to tweeting.

The Arkansas Supreme Court said Thursday, "More troubling is the fact that after being questioned about whether he had tweeted during the trial, Juror 2 continued to tweet during the trial."

Dimas-Martinez' attorneys said Franco tweeted two different times while the jury was deliberating in the sentencing phase. He tweeted, "If its wisdom we seek. . . We should run to the strong tower." Franco tweeted "It's over" less than an hour before a verdict was announced.

A lower court denied Dimas-Martinez' motion for a new trial, stating he "suffered no prejudice."

In an earlier case before the state Supreme court, the state argued that the juror's tweets were about his feelings and not the case.

In Thursday's courts opinion, Associate Justice Donald Corbin wrote that "prejudice results from the fact that the juror admitted to the misconduct, which proves that he failed to follow the court's instructions, and it is the failure to follow the law that prejudiced Appellant."

The Arkansas Supreme Court has a provision in place that states that "electronic devices shall not be used in the courtroom to broadcast, record, photograph, e-mail, blog, tweet, text, post, or transmit by any other means except as may be allowed by the court."

As a result, Corbin wrote that the risk of prejudice is "simply too high' to allow jurors to post any information or "musings" online.

Corbin wrote that the court now wants its committees on criminal practice and civil practice to consider whether jurors' access to mobile phones should be limited during a trial.

The Arkansas case is the latest of a number across the country dealing with use of social networking by jurors during trials.

(Edited by Greg McCune)

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