Imagine for a moment that O.J. Simpson hadn't penned a suicide note and hightailed it to the Tijuana border with a passport, a fake beard, and a map of Mexico as newscopters swirled above his head. Or that Susan Smith hadn't shed crocodile tears on national television while falsely accusing a black man of kidnapping her young sons. Or that Rodney King hadn't been beaten by officers on a videotape that was soon part of every newscast around the country.
This Bizarro World may be difficult to conjure--say the words "white Bronco" and, 16 years on, people still know what you mean--but sequestered juries, such as the one that decided the case of Casey Anthony, a Florida mother accused of killing her 2-year-old daughter, are routinely asked to discount sometimes ubiquitous pre-trial publicity in high-profile trials. That was hard enough to do in the early 1990s, when tabloid and court programming reigned and CNN replayed such scenes ad nauseam. But it seems impossible today, when nearly everyone comments on the latest news via Facebook and Twitter, and YouTube is a repository for car chases and police beatings. In an age when Google is a verb, and many rely on their phones to wake them up, schedule their lives, and pay their bills, is it still reasonable to expect juries to make decisions in a vacuum?
The jurors and alternates in the Anthony case were chosen in Clearwater, Florida, and shipped 100 miles east to Orlando, where they lived in a hotel for 43 days without access to their cell phones or the Internet. This unusual arrangement was cheaper than a change of venue, and Judge Belvin Perry hoped to draw from a jury pool not as familiar with the details of the case, which electrified Orlando: Scores of volunteers had turned out to search for Caylee Anthony when she went missing in June of 2008, and their goodwill turned to bitterness when her body was found on the Anthonys' property six months later. Protesters began gathering at the Anthony house, on one occasion almost breaking down the garage door.
Soon, details of the Anthony family's dysfunction emerged, fueling the tabloid engine: Casey inexplicably waited 31 days to report her daughter missing, and in that time, she was arrested for check fraud. Casey's father, George, was on suicide watch; Casey's mother, Cindy, posted angry messages to her MySpace account directed at her daughter. Before the trial even began, the Orlando Fox affiliate trained live-streaming webcams on the Anthony house. Casey Anthony's Photobucket account, revealing the party girl puking into a toilet and sporting a mile-wide grin just days after her daughter supposedly drowned in the family pool, spread around the Internet quickly. When the aftermath eclipses the crime, the public renders its own verdict before a single testimony has been recorded.
The Anthony jurors were allowed to go online to pay bills, but they had to use a shared computer under the strict supervision of law enforcement. Their televisions blocked news channels, and the only calls permitted were supervised conversations on landlines. Because of the isolation required for trial, several potential jurors purposely tainted the jury pool during selection by discussing the case so that they would be dismissed.
But you'd have to travel to North Korea to find enough people who had escaped the three-year media circus that played out like a reality show and featured drama-worthy twists--Imaginary friends! Angry, violent protesters! A spotlight-hungry bail-bondsman! This case was a circus long before Anthony's attorney, Jose Baez, raised a complicated defense involving swimming pools and incest. So how could a prospective juror a few counties over know to turn away from the tabloids at the grocery store because in three years she'd have to judge the fate of the woman on the cover? And forgetting what you've seen "four to five times a day" for months on end, as one prospective Anthony juror put it, is close to impossible. The expense of sequestration hardly seems worthwhile. It cost the state of Florida $350,000 to sequester the Anthony jury.
Yet sequestration may be the only option. Judges have struggled to keep up with a growing number of outlets, and "do not communicate" about the case has become "do not Tweet." In a jury that's not sequestered, cell phones are confiscated during the day's proceedings, and revealing details online before a verdict is rendered can result in a mistrial. In another Florida courtroom last September, a manslaughter conviction was overturned and a mistrial triggered when a juror used his iPhone to look up the definition of "prudence." (Maybe he should have looked up "irony" instead.) Last month in Britain, a juror contacted a defendant in a drug trial through Facebook, collapsing the trial. In 2009, The New York Times reported that Web research conducted by jurors had spoiled multiple cases, wasting taxpayer dollars and weeks of work.
Jury secrecy is supposed to ensure the jury's impartiality by protecting it from everything that happens outside the courtroom. Gerald Uelmen, a member of O.J. Simpson's criminal defense team, told Frontline in 2005, "The people watching television actually saw more than the jury did. You saw all of the interviews of other people, stuff that we decided the jury shouldn't hear because it's not relevant evidence or its prejudicial impact might outweigh its probative value."
Simpson trial judge Lance Ito had set strict rules relating to exposure to the media: One juror was excluded for watching cartoons with her children, another for waking up to a clock radio. So many books were published about the trial before it even concluded-- even one during jury selection--that Ito amended his admonition: "I forgot to tell you to stay out of bookstores."
Keeping information from jurors' ears can be like keeping sand in a sieve, and it's not always worth it. Alan Dershowitz, another of Simpson's attorneys, later conceded, "Probably, in certain terms of the ultimate truth, the outsider, the person watching it on TV has more ultimate truth available to him or her." In fact, enough information is available to the viewing public that a consensus is sometimes reached that is different than the one arrived at inside the jury room, as was the case with the Anthony trial this week. Much of America viewed Casey Anthony as guilty, and many were surprised when the jury came back with a not-guilty verdict. They also thought her four-year sentence for lying to detectives was too light, especially since, thanks to time served, she will be released on July 17.
For legions of Googlers, being limited to a censored version of the facts is incomprehensible and outdated. The court of public opinion is always open, and always judging, using every tool at its disposal. It's harder and harder to find jurors like Jennifer Ford, the one person who'd never heard of Casey Anthony before being selected for jury duty. Ford's mother said her daughter was a quiet person who was always studying for her nursing degree and didn't read the newspapers or watch TV. That's truly a feat in today's saturated media landscape, and it may be unrealistic to continue to expect it.