It’s a fundamental principle that an accused person has a right to a fair trial. In the American legal system, this principle has been underpinned by the common law offense and reinforced by legislation. In each State and U.S. Territory, it is an offense for a juror to inquire about a person who is a party in a trial or any relevant matter to a trial. This allows for an accused party the right to a fair trial where jurors have no prior knowledge or predisposed opinions on any of the parties in the trail so as not to influence the jury’s decisions. Traditional media, such as the news and newspapers, are much acquainted with the “law of sub judice contempt” and they never discuss the criminal history of an accused party. In recent times, it has become clear that information on trials, especially high profile trials, can be shared amongst social media channels, posing complications on an accused right to a fair trial.
Social media is a serious issue that has led to aborted trials in recent years. With the immediacy of information and opinions available on social media, it is very difficult to keep jurors in the dark about the past of those they are judging on trial. The single most significant challenge presented to the courts in terms of juries and fair trials are presented by social media and the misuse of it by the jurors. A number of studies have been conducted in recent years that have calculated the number of trials and court decisions that have been overturned, in part, because of juror actions related to the internet.
There are a number of ways that jurors have misused social media during trials. Some of the most common issues social media has presented to fair trials are jurors on social media to give the details of cases ongoing, commenting on trials after they have been concluded, and the use of social media to seek out responses or advice about the case they have been assigned to. Some less common, examples are communicating with parties of the trail via social media or friending and following other jurors during the trial. There have even been cases of jurors searching the internet for information on the accused parties that have not been submitted to the courts for the case.
It would be unfair to say that social media is bad for the criminal justice system as it has presented new opportunities for different institutions. Social media has presented police, for example, unprecedented access to the public allowing them to communicate in real time about incidents and events. Facebook and Twitter have become an important tool for investigations and forced an added level of transparency to criminal proceedings. But when it comes down the fairness of trials and courts making the correct decisions on big trials, social media has presented problems and complications.
Trial by social media has become a huge concern for the criminal justice system and poses threats to prosecutions and the rights to a fair trial. It is becoming increasingly important for the criminal justice system to reform the way it goes about jury selection and the court proceedings. Big time decisions in court need to be protected for the rights of the accused and social media has complicated this over recent years, posing more harm than good.