LONDON (Reuters) - A juror who contacted a defendant through the Facebook social networking website, causing a multi-million pound trial to collapse, was jailed for eight months on Thursday in a British legal first.
Joanne Fraill, 40, was the first person in Britain to be convicted of contempt of court involving the internet, and the Solicitor General said her case should serve as a warning to other jurors.
“I hope it will act as a deterrent,” Edward Garnier told reporters, saying it had been in the public interest to prosecute.
“It’s important that the integrity of our justice system and the integrity of our jury system is maintained and preserved and seen to be so.”
Fraill admitted at London’s High Court to using Facebook to exchange messages with Jamie Sewart, 34, a female defendant who had been acquitted in an ongoing drug trial in the northern English city of Manchester last year.
She also admitted conducting an internet search into Sewart’s boyfriend, Gary Knox, a co-defendant, while the jury was still deliberating.
Taxpayers were left picking up a bill of 6 million pounds ($10 million) after the judge was forced to discharge the jury when Fraill’s actions came to light when Sewart told her lawyer.
Fraill, who the court heard had contacted Sewart because she empathized with her, put her head on the table and sobbed uncontrollably as her jail term was announced.
Lord Chief Justice Igor Judge, the head of the judiciary, said in a written ruling she was “a woman of good character” and had not been involved in an attempt to pervert the course of justice.
But he said her actions had been flagrant breaches of orders made by the trial judge and also warned that a jail sentence for a juror committing similar contempt was “virtually inevitable.”
Sewart was given a two-month sentence suspended for two years after being found guilty of contempt, the Press Association reported.
“I really feel for the woman,” Sewart told reporters.
The use of the internet by jurors has already derailed several cases in countries including the United States.
A Reuters Legal analysis conducted last year found that jurors' forays on the internet had resulted in dozens of mistrials, appeals and overturned verdicts in the preceding two years alone. (here)
Solicitor General Garnier said he did not think the internet made such cases more likely or jeopardize the jury system.
“One doesn’t need to get too hung up about the magic of the internet. Jurors have been able to gossip with their neighbors, be influenced by their friends and go to the public library to look up things,” he said.
“Whether you communicate by Facebook, whether you research on the internet, whether you talk over your garden fence ... you must understand when you take an oath as a member of a jury, when you disobey that oath ... and it is discovered, you may very well be held in contempt.”
Editing by Steve Addison