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Juror’s Wikipedia use means new trial

A juror’s use of Wikipedia to research an element of a criminal offense violated a defendant’s right to a fair trial on illegal “cockfighting” charges, and the defendant should be retried, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said on April 20.

Defendant Scott Lawson and others were charged with violating a federal animal fighting statute, 7 U.S.C. § 2156(a). But after the South Carolina jury came back with a guilty verdict, one of the jurors told the court that another juror brought a Wikipedia printout to the jury deliberations that covered an online entry for the term “sponsor,” which was an element of the federal charge.

After a hearing, the Columbia, S.C., district judge found there had been some change to the Wikipedia entry from the time the juror first conducted the research to the time of the district court’s hearing on juror misconduct.

But the district court found no harm, no foul, and denied defendant’s motion for a new trial due to prejudice.

On a question that has split federal courts of appeal, the 4th Circuit said it will continue to use a rebuttable presumption of prejudice when there has been third-party unauthorized communication with a juror during trial.

Judge Barbara Milano Keenan said this presumption applies when a juror uses a dictionary or similar resource to research the definition of a material word. An extrinsic influence has been injected into the trial, which the court cannot control, Keenan said.

“Given the open-access nature of Wikipedia, the danger in relying on a Wikipedia entry is obvious and real,” Keenan wrote.

The government failed to rebut the presumption of prejudice and the appellate panel vacated Lawson’s and codefendants’ convictions under the animal fighting statute.

The case is U.S. v. Lawson (VLW 012-2-093).
–Deborah Elkins

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