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Handy Devices Give Jurors Pipeline to World

You've probably seen classic courtroom dramas in which the prosecution and defense present arguments, and then the judge issues stern instructions to jurors before they retire for secret deliberations.

Secret being the operative word.

The judge warns them to discuss the case with each other and no one else - not even their spouses. They are to read no newspaper accounts of the alleged crime or the trial or watch any broadcast reports about them.

Yet mistrials involving jury misconduct are being declared all over the country. It's not because jurors are deliberately ignoring judges' admonitions. It's because, almost without thinking, they are sending and receiving e-mail messages, typing short bursts called Tweets to friends, and searching the Internet to get information that they feel wasn't adequately covered in the courtroom.

Listen to the first couple of sentences of a recent New York Times story: Last week, the paper reported, "a juror in a big federal drug trial in Florida admitted to the judge that he had been doing research on the case on the Internet . . . " But when the judge questioned the rest of the jury, he got an even bigger shock. Eight other jurors had been doing the same thing.

The use of handheld texting and Web-capable devices like the BlackBerry and the iPhone is wreaking havoc on trials around the country, according to the paper. Even juries that are locked up during deliberations are sneaking such things as online background checks on the accused during bathroom breaks and overnight in their guarded hotel rooms.

The remedy - if there is one in our gadget-happy society - will likely involve even stronger and more specific warnings to juries. And possibly even the search for, and confiscation of, their cellphones, text machines and other all-too-convenient connections to the outside world.

Read more of Ted's personal reflections and stories from the road on his blog, Ted Landphair's America.