Courts - Ohio Courts welcome new jury rule for social media

WILLOUGHBY, Ohio (AP) -- Judges, lawyers and prosecutors are welcoming a new rule warning jurors against using social media to gather information during trials.

The standard instruction, not to talk about a case, has changed with the times, said Lake County Common Pleas Court Judge Vincent Culotta.

Judges must now take into consideration social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, video sharing sites like YouTube, powerful search engines like Google, and smart phones that allow instant access to the Internet.

"The definition of talk has changed," Culotta said.

The optional instruction for judges was issued by the Ohio State Bar Association last month. It warns Ohio juries against using smart phones, e-mail, blogs, Twitter and other social media to gather information about a case.

The instruction, which also covers chat rooms and texting, updates warnings judges can already give about staying away from newspaper and television coverage of a case.

In Geauga County Common Pleas Court, Judge Forrest Burt instructs jurors not to use Facebook or Twitter, but has not banned cell phones.

"I'm not naive enough to know it hasn't occurred," Burt said. "It just hasn't occurred enough for us to know about it."

Lake County Prosecutor Charles Coulson said the update is important to the integrity of the judicial system. Dominic Vitantonio, a Cleveland-area defense attorney, said the rule is necessary in the information age.

A lawyer who helped develop the new rule acknowledges it could make the already tough job of finding jurors even more difficult.

"I'm hoping we won't drive jurors away," said Jack Neuenschwander, chairman of the bar association's Jury Instructions Committee.

Ohio Supreme Court Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger said it's important for judges to explain the reason for the new rule.

"We're not trying to keep the truth from anyone -- pull the wool over anyone's eyes," Lanzinger said. "The rules of evidence are there for a reason to make sure both sides get a fair trial."

Lanzinger has spoken frequently about the importance of understanding the role of social media. Earlier this month she unveiled her blog, "Justice Judy," which explains the law, civics and the judicial system.

A national courts association plans a survey next month of judges and court administrators across the country to gauge the impact of social media and modern technology on courts.

The Conference of Court Public Information Officers will present its findings in August, said Chris Davey of the Ohio Supreme Court's Office of Public Information.

Published: Tue, Jun 15, 2010