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Jury Instructions Could Temper Social Media in James Holmes Trial

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

James Holmes, the alleged movie theatre gunman, is facing 142 charges stemming from the Aurora theatre shooting in July. The charges include 12 counts of first-degree murder, 12 counts of first-degree murder with extreme indifference, 116 counts of attempted murder, one count of committing a crime of violence, and one count of possession of explosives.

Details emerged this week indicating that the prosecution will characterize the shootings as a revenge plot, while the defense will plead insanity, reports the Huffington Post.

If Holmes decides to see the case through to trial, it could be one of the most talked-about cases in recent memory.

Talk during trials can take on many forms, thanks to social media. While average citizens are welcome to tweet their views on what’s happening during a high-profile case, the jurors in that case are not allowed to join the conversation.

Let’s fast-forward to the possible Aurora shooting trial. If jurors in the James Holmes trial were to use their phones to research facts in the case, or live-tweet the proceedings, there could be grounds for a mistrial. To avoid an unnecessary trip to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals to argue the merits of a mistrial, the district judge should stick to the Judicial Conference Committee on Court Administration and Case Management’s proposed model jury instructions regarding electronic technology use during trial.

The official document, Proposed Model Jury Instructions The Use of Electronic Technology to Conduct Research on or Communicate about a Case, is available here.

The new guidelines provide detailed explanations of the consequences of social media use during a trial, along with recommendations for repeated reminders of the ban on social media usage.

Along with the guidelines, trial judges will be provided with a poster stressing the importance of jurors making decisions based on information presented only in the courtroom. (That means jurors shouldn’t be turning to Twitter or Wikipedia for additional facts.) The poster is designed to be displayed in the jury deliberation room or other areas where jurors congregate.

Social media mistrials are entirely avoidable. If jurors in the James Holmes trial are repeatedly reminded of the consequences of using social media during the trial, they might be less likely to post status updates on the latest developments when the trial kicks off.

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