Web & communication software

Sex, Murder, and Facebook: The Perils of Social Media

Why would jurors in a huge murder trial violate a judge's order to not discuss the case by posting seemingly innocuous comments about the trial on their Facebook pages? That's what the judge, the court, the lawyers, and the public in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, want to know.

Just a few days after a 12-person jury found Michael Roseboro, a 42-year-old funeral home director, guilty of murdering his wife, Jan, by beating her and drowning her in their in-ground backyard swimming pool last summer, news broke that two of the jurors had posted notes about the trial on their Facebook pages. According to a story today in the local Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era newspaper, those communications by two jurors are now being scrutinized as the judge in the case, Judge James Cullen, decides whether to hold a post-verdict hearing on the matter.

The case was scandalous on its own merits, before the Facebook fiasco sprung up. Defendant Michael Roseboro was found guilty of murdering his wife so he could be free to marry his girlfriend, who has since borne the couple's child while he was in jail.

The Facebook pages of both jurors, Nick Keene and Michael Hecker, both of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, were viewable to the public during the trial, but Hecker's page has now been made private. Keene's page this morning appears to have been stripped of some of the earlier posts that were reported in the newspaper. Keene complained to friends in one post that he had been selected for the jury. "Yea it blows three (expletive) weeks and when I'm done I have two weeks until school starts," he wrote, according to the newspaper.

Last week, Keene posted a note saying he hoped it would be the last week of his jury duty, according to the newspaper. Several friends replied, including one who wrote "Fry him," referring to the accused killer, the story said.

This certainly wasn't the first time that jurors in a legal case have used social media such as Facebook, Twitter or MySpace to send their thoughts and impressions out to friends and the world, but it's a growing problem for the legal system. An Arkansas case involving mismanagement of investor funds by a defendant was compromised earlier this year by a juror who tweeted about the proceedings. A case in Great Britain last year had a juror dismissed after she allegedly used Facebook to ask friends to help her decide a case.

My first thought as I read these accounts is, what in the world were they thinking? A judge tells you not to communicate with anyone about the case on which you serve as a juror. It's very straightforward. Don't discuss it in any way. Don't read newspaper stories about the case. Don't watch the news coverage on TV or listen to it on the radio. Excuse yourself if others talk about the case near you. Wear your "JUROR" pin so that people know you are on a jury and won't try to influence you. These are all instructions from a judge in a trial.

Why is that so difficult to understand?

Now the Roseboro case, and others like it, is in legal limbo as the courts try to figure out what to do next. Was the verdict influenced because these two jurors couldn't follow simple and clear directions from a judge? That is what will now have to be determined by Judge Cullen in the Lancaster case. A three-week-long murder trial that was difficult for the family of the victim and for the community now stands in jeopardy and possibly could have to be repeated. Not a good day for social media.

I know, I know, Facebook and Twitter and all the rest are very seductive to people. They allow you to share with your friends and family, to tell the world all of your incredibly important and personal observations and thoughts. It's amazing what people share: every tiny detail from what they are eating for lunch to just having gone to the bathroom to "just chillin' out."

But there are times in life, with your spouse, with your kids, with your boss, where NOT saying something in more powerful than saying something. There are times when good judgment is really important about what you should say in a situation.

A trial is one such occasion when you are participating as a juror. No discussion. No contact. No remarks. No observations. No comments.

What in the world is so hard to remember about this? If it was your trial, you'd sure want the jury to do the same for you.

(Todd R. Weiss is a freelance technology journalist who formerly wrote for Computerworld.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/TechManTalking)

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