Crime, Jury Duty, Rape, Technology

Child Sexual Assault Conviction Tossed Because of Juror’s ‘Online Cultural Research’

Why don't jurors listen to directions?

As we heard from Elie last week, a jury is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get. The already unpredictable American jury system has gotten even more chaotic over the last several years as the internet has become ubiquitous, at home and in court.

Juror misconduct by internet can lead to mistrials, and it’s becoming increasingly (and unfortunately) more common. Last month the Vermont Supreme Court overturned an unsettling child sexual assault conviction because a juror conducted his own research about the Somali Bantu culture central to the parties in the case.

What a mess…

A man named Ali M. Abdi, who is part of a Somali immigrant community, was accused of sexually assaulting his 9-year-old niece. The case was brought to law enforcement after the man confessed his crime in front of various members of his community.

The original confession was part of a Somali Bantu tradition, which involves swearing over the Koran.

He was eventually convicted of aggravated sexual assault on a child. But things got complicated when the court found out that one juror had done his own research about the cultural significance of Abdi’s alleged crime and confession.

The appeals court said the snafu wasn’t enough for a new trial, but the Vermont Supreme Court disagreed, in a ruling late last month:

Somali Bantu religion and culture lay at the heart of this case, and it is simply impossible to conclude that outside information used by at least one juror — as the trial court found — to “interpret the testimony of the Somali witnesses and to determine the credibility of these witnesses” could have had no impact on the verdict.

So what exactly happened? It is actually a fascinating example of how micro-communities within United States attempt to handle their own problems before turning to official law enforcement. It also shows the inherent difficulties in trying to parse the truth from cultural traditions unfamiliar to most Americans. This is not something we hear about very often:

[T]here is no doubt that the information related directly to a subject that pervaded the trial from start to finish — Somali Bantu culture and its impact on the behavior and testimony of the trial witnesses. To recall, for example, the State adduced testimony from several Somali Bantu elders suggesting that defendant ultimately confessed to the assault to avoid the dire consequences of lying on the Koran.

Defendant argued from the same evidence, however, that the admission was solely to spare his wife from suffering the same fate. “You may not believe it, it’s not something that’s part of your culture, but what we believe isn’t what matters here,” defense counsel argued. “[I]t was damned if you do, damned if you don’t. The only way that [defendant] could save his family… in a way that wouldn’t be catastrophic was to say I admit it.”

Other cultural considerations given in testimony included the fact that Somali Bantu culture forbids a sexual assault victim from marrying another Somali Bantu person. That was seen to give credit to the alleged victim, who would have known that by reporting what allegedly happened, she might never be able to get married.

On the other side, the defense noted in testimony knew that although divorce is prohibited in Somali Bantu culture, except in cases of sexual misconduct, the defendant’s wife had looked into getting a divorce before the allegations surfaced. The attorneys suggested this as a motive to fabricate charges against her husband.

The point is, things were already muddled and complicated enough without some wiseacre juror showing up to proclaim, “Last night, I was looking on Wikipedia, and I think you all should know…”

The system doesn’t work that way. And as Judge Zimmerman’s ruling notes, it doesn’t even matter if the Independent Study Juror affected any other juror’s opinion. It only takes one to throw the whole trial.

Judge Zimmerman concludes her opinion with a blunt call for an institutional change in the way courts address juries and technology (citations omitted):

We note, as well, the increasing problem of jurors consulting the internet for outside information that this case all too clearly illustrates. Although Vermont trial courts routinely admonish jurors not to consult outside sources, it may well be time to consider a stronger and more technology-specific admonition… We can not ignore the realities of our “information age,” where the internet and other technologies have made information more widely and immediately accessible than ever before.

You said it, Judge Zimmerman. Everyone wants to be Ike Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Men. But “12 Angry Men & Wikipedia” just isn’t the same.

State of Vermont v. Ali M. Abdi [Vermont Supreme Court]

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