Juror’s Tweets During Death Penalty Trial, Sentencing Deliberations, Reverse Conviction

A juror who tweeted during a murder trial, and while he and his fellow jurors deliberated, led the Arkansas Supreme Court to reverse the conviction of a 26-year-old death row inmate.

While there were other factors that led the court to send the case back for a new trial, the tweets played a key role in its decision.

We’re not talking about a one time tweet either. The juror was a consistent, repeat offender who ignored the trial judge’s jury instructions even before opening statements about the case. He just couldn’t shake the Twitter bird off his back.

The judge could not have been any clearer:

“When you’re back in the jury room, it’s fine with me to use your cell phone if you need to call home or call business. Just remember, never discuss this case over your cell phone. And don’t Twitter anybody about this case. That did happen down in Washington County and almost had a, a $15 million law verdict overthrown. So don’t Twitter. Don’t use your cell phone to talk to anybody about this case other than perhaps the length of the case or something like that.”

For Juror No. 2, Randy Franco, not tweeting information about the trial was simply impossible.

This was a capital murder case, meaning that defendant Erickson Dimas-Martinez (inset) could face the death penalty if convicted. The stakes couldn’t have been any higher.

Yet Franco couldn’t follow the judge’s instructions. He tweeted during the trial. When the defense attorney representing Erickson Dimas-Martinez learned about the juror’s tweets (as well as another juror nodding off during proceedings) she sought a mistrial for her client. The judge denied the request.

The trial judge questioned Franco about his tweets, and admonished him, but Franco didn’t lisen.

He kept tweeting during jury deliberations, and the sentencing phase, writing, “Choices to be made. Hearts to be broken. We each define the great line.”

Then Franco appears to have tweeted as soon as he and his fellow jurors reached a decision about whether or not to impose the death penalty.  Fifty (50) minutes before the jury informed the judge that it was done deliberating, Franco tweeted, “It’s over.”

Yesterday, the Arkansas Supreme Court set aside Dimas-Hernandez’s conviction and ordered a new trial (see below), in part, because of juror Franco’s tweets:

Because of the very nature of Twitter as an on online social media site, Juror 2’s tweets about the trial were very much public discussions. Even if such discussions were one-sided, it is in no way appropriate for a juror to state musings, thoughts, or other information about a case in such a public fashion.

Capital cases are enormously expensive. One juror’s tweets cost Arkansas taxpayers a huge amount of money. According to the Arkansas Coalition to Abolition the Death Penalty, “The most rigorous cost study in the country found that a single death sentence in Maryland costs almost $2 million more than a comparable non-death penalty case.” (emphasis added)

One big issue: will the tweeting juror face any repercussions for his conduct.

So what can states do to restrict juror communication via social media in the Facebook and Twitter age?

They should follow the Silicon Valley state’s lead. In January, a new California’s law restricting jurors from using “all forms of electronic and wireless communication” to disseminate information about the trial takes effect.  Any juror who opts to ignore a judge’s admonishment not to communicate information about the trial will face criminal or civil contempt of court charges.

In January, a new California’s law restricting jurors from using “all forms of electronic and wireless communication” to disseminate information about the trial takes effect.  Any juror who opts to ignore a judge’s admonishment not to communicate information about the trial will face criminal or civil contempt of court charges.

Read the Arkansas Supreme Court decision reversing a death penalty conviction, and ordering a new trial, partly because of one juror’s tweets:

Photo credit: Ginae McDonald/Shutterstock.com

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  • I like the juror, who during the O.J. trial, wore a Star Trek uniform every day. Criminal Defense attorneys who can seek out that eccentricity in a juror will surely get mistrials or acquittals.

    I once picked a juror who asked what I’ll call inappropriate questions of the lawyers during voir dire. We got a hung jury, 11-1!

  • Observateur

    I was impressed with your recent blog post, “Juror’s Tweets During Death Penalty Trial, Sentencing Deliberations, Reverse Conviction.”

    Perhaps European courts will think that this is criminal conduct, and put jurors in jail. Yes?