Social media playing bigger role in Northwest Arkansas jury selection

Attorneys say online posts can reveal bias, assist in choosing jurors

BENTONVILLE -- Nothing is left to chance when it comes to selecting a jury that might help convict or exonerate a person.

"Every lawyer on any case wants to find background information on jurors to learn about their views," said Nathan Smith, Benton County prosecutor.

Jay Saxton, Benton County's chief public defender, said attorneys should do everything within the law to protect their clients.

Some attorneys check social media sites in hopes of getting information on prospective jurors before jury selection takes place. Do they have a Facebook page? Are they into Twitter? What other social media sites interest them?

Smith has someone in his office check online sites after prosecutors get a list of prospective jurors before a trial starts. The information gleaned might give a clue as to what type of juror a person could be, Smith said.

The American Bar Association released a 2014 opinion that agrees attorneys should review social media sites to prepare for jury selection. Questioning prospective jurors in person is still important, but using online information is another tool in finding suitable jurors, Smith said.

Some people might post information on social media sites that might disqualify them from serving on a jury in specific cases. Smith said he wouldn't want to select a person whose Facebook page has views that favor legalizing marijuana for a drug trial, but that person might be a good juror in a murder case.

"If 'Making a Murderer' changed their life, then I wouldn't want that person on a jury," Smith said.

"Making a Murderer" is a Netflix documentary series following the murder case of Steven Avery and his nephew, Brendan Dassey, in Manitowoc County, Wis.

Smith said his staff only views social media sites before the trial but doesn't constantly check the sites. His staff also would never friend a prospective juror on Facebook or follow them on Twitter to gather information, he said.

Springdale attorney Joel Huggins said his law partner and wife, Elizabeth, checks Facebook to gather information on prospective jurors. Any information a lawyer can learn is valuable when it comes to a juror, Huggins said.

Huggins represented Jennifer Moss of Gentry last month in her manslaughter trial in connection with the death of her son. She was sentenced to six years in prison.

Juror questionnaires attorneys get before trial don't contain much information, Huggins said.

Information asked in a Benton County jury summons form is similar to a job application. The summons asks for name, age, hometown, education history and the name of an employer among other tidbits of information such as "Have you served as a juror before?"

"Facebook is now a great source of information," Huggins said.

Washington County Prosecutor Matt Durrett said his office doesn't check social media sites because of timing issues. Durrett said his office typically gets a juror list two days before trial.

"I could probably stick somebody on it, but typically when somebody's getting ready for trial there is a lot of stuff going on that has a higher priority than that," he said.

Durrett, though, said he can see the benefits of checking social media sites.

"It could certainly help streamline voir dire if you have additional information about a juror," Durrett said. "So, I haven't ever ruled it out. If we've got the time on a case, we might do it in the future."

Rogers attorney Ken Swindle also said he usually checks Facebook and other social media sites to prepare for jury selection. Swindle represented a client in a jury trial against State Farm insurance company on Thursday. Swindle knew jury selection would be short so there was no need to review any online sites. Swindle said he's not interested in a prospective juror's personal interests.

"There are some potential jurors who may have bias against awarding money," Swindle said. "I'm mainly looking for those biases."

James Graves of Siloam Springs served on a two-day trial this week in Benton County Circuit Judge Robin Green's courtroom. Graves didn't have any problems with attorneys possibly viewing his Facebook page before jury selection.

"I would feel OK with it," he said. "I'm always very careful about what I put on Facebook."

Graves didn't think it was an invasion of his privacy.

"It's in the public," he said. "You can set your privacy settings where it isn't seen."

Benton County Circuit Judge Brad Karren doesn't have any problems with attorneys checking social media sites to learn about prospective jurors. Karren said he did the same thing when he was a practicing attorney.

NW News on 08/20/2016

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