Cellphones, Jury Duty, Media and Journalism, Murder, Social Media, Social Networking Websites, Trials, Twittering

Another Mistrial Declared After Modern Technology Unacceptably Intrudes into Court

Usually when we hear about courtroom drama stemming from social media, it’s caused by someone, you know, actually involved in the case.

Not today! This week, a judge declared a mistrial in a Kansas murder case after a pesky reporter shot and published a cellphone pic from trial. What kind of scandalous photos was the intrepid journalist taking?

The kind that almost certainly doesn’t warrant a mistrial….

The mistrial was declared because the reporter allegedly took a picture that included a juror, and then she posted it on the local newspaper website. From the Topeka Capital-Journal:

Opening statements began Tuesday in the trial of 20-year-old Austin Tabor, who is charged with shooting and killing 20-year-old Matthew Mitchell after hours on the grounds of Topeka West High School in 2010. The trial came to an abrupt halt Wednesday morning because of a photo posted online by a Capital-Journal reporter who live-tweeted the trial’s opening on Tuesday.

“One of the photos apparently showed one or more of the jurors,” said Lee McGowan, the district attorney’s spokesman. “It was brought to the court’s attention, and ultimately a mistrial was declared.”

Wow. This judge doesn’t mess around. Doesn’t that seem a little excessive to anyone else? Though, to be fair, photographing jurors is not allowed in Kansas, and the reporter knew it:

According to rules established by the Kansas Supreme Court, “Individual jurors shall not be photographed. In courtrooms where photography is impossible without including the jury as part of the unavoidable background, the photography is permitted, but close-ups which identify individual jurors are prohibited.”

Capital-Journal Publisher Gregg Ireland said the reporter, Ann Marie Bush, was aware of the rules.

“A photo inadvertently was posted that contained the profile of a juror in the background,” Ireland said. “The Capital-Journal regrets the error and loss of the court’s time. We will use this as a training opportunity for our staff members as they strive to bring information to our readers in digital and print media.”

District Court Judge Mark Braun, who is presiding over the trial, had agreed to allow camera phones in the courtroom but ordered that no photos be taken of jurors, McGowan said.

Whether the juror was in the foreground or background of the (probably crappy cellphone) picture, a mistrial seems like it might have been an overly harsh consequence for an easily correctable problem. The newspaper just needed to take the photo down, which it appears to have done.

The judge’s call feels needlessly impractical, if for no other reason than it’s a massive inconvenience for everyone involved:

Mitchell’s cousin, Houston James, said he understood the judge’s decision, but it was still disappointing.

“I’ve been waiting for this day about two years,” said James, who was set to testify in the case. “It was going smoothly. It was going straight smoothly until today.”

According to another news article, the trial was supposed to be rescheduled for June or July, but the attorneys and the judge were having trouble with that, too. Apparently everyone’s schedules are too full to have a trial:

On Thursday, Braun, prosecutors Matt Patterson and Lee McGowan, and defense attorney Julia Spainhour attempted to find a six- or seven-day time frame to schedule the trial. Tabor wasn’t in court.

Other trials, holidays and a judicial conference blocked a new trial date. Following a mistrial and as part of a defendant’s right to a speedy trial, he must be tried within 90 days if he is in jail.

Tabor is in the Shawnee County Jail in lieu of bond. If the defendant isn’t tried within the time limit, charges are dismissed.

However, Kansas law allows a judge to add an extra 30 days to the 90 days if the court doesn’t have sufficient time to commence the trial within the 90 days.

The extra 30 days can be used only once, Kansas statutes say.

Even with the extra 30 days, the proposed Aug. 13 trial date for Tabor would be four days past the 120-day limit.

Now the litigants have to wait until Monday to have another hearing because the local courthouse is closed today due to budget cuts.

What a disaster.

As Elie mentioned yesterday in Non-Sequiturs, it’s odd to watch social media grind the gears of the justice system to a screeching halt. Until there is more consistency in the way courts respond to this stuff, social media + the courts will continue to be a patchwork quilt of annoyingness and inefficiency.

Still, that might be better than having in-court delays while Judge So-and-So has to update his Twitter feed about the smokin’ blonde in the second row.

Juror photo leads to Tabor mistrial [CJOnline]
Full judge, lawyer calendars block new Tabor trial his room [CJOnline]
Gavel bang: Reporter’s Tweet Posting Photo of Juror Causes Mistrial in Kan. Murder Case [Legal Blog Watch]

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