by Max Brantley
The Arkansas Supreme Court today reversed the capital murder conviction and death sentence of Erickson Dimas-Martinez in Benton County because Judge David Clinger failed to call a mistrial or dismiss jurors who'd either slept during the trial or who'd disregarded the judge's instructions and used his cell phone to Twitter during the trial and jury deliberations.
The court ordered a new trial for the defendant in the slaying of Derrick Jefferson, 17, after a robbery.
The Supreme Court found Clinger had abused discretion in refusing a defense request to dismiss a juror seen sleeping for as long as five minutes. The court has turned back other cases on sleeping jurors, but said this one was a different matter. It said a juror who slept five minutes had no way of knowing whether something important had been missed. The juror had claimed as much. Since the objection was properly raised, the judge had an opportunity to substitute an alternate, but failed to do so.
The court also reversed the conviction because of a juror's use of Twitter, reported by news media at the time. He was questioned about it during the trial, but, despite that, the court noted, he continued to Twitter in disregard of the judge's order afterward. The state contended that since his remarks weren't specifically about the case, it was harmless to the outcome.
The court said, however, in an opinion written by Justice Donald Corbin, that the very nature of Twitter — with public messages distributed to the worldwide web — meant that the juror's comments constituted a publid discussion. The court said "it is in no way appropriate" for a juror to "state musings, thoughts or other information" in such a fashion. The Supreme Court noted that it had adopted a rule in 2010 to prohibit use of electronic devices in court except as allowed by a judge. This case illustrates the dangers, the court said, particularly the juror's communication with a news reporter that allowed news that a verdict had been reached to be publicly disclosed before it was announced.
Noting the possiblity for misconduct because of the powers of mobile phones, the Supreme Court referred to its Civil Practice Committee the question of whether jurors' access to phones should be limited during trials.