In, State of Tennessee v. William Darelle Smith, a story that highlights just how seriously online actions can impact real world events, the Tennessee Supreme Court issued an important ruling last week concerning the legal impact of a Facebook message. Last Tuesday the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that a 2010 murder conviction and life sentence of a man would likely be overturned because of the unexamined impact of a Facebook message. What was the Facebook message, you might understandably be wondering? It was a note exchanged between a juror and expert witness, something the Supreme Court decided was enough to justify sending the case back to trial.
In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ordered the murder case of William Darelle Smith to be reheard unless the state can prove that the juror should not have been disqualified. The issue arose because the Davidson County Criminal Court failed to conduct an evidentiary hearing concerning the Facebook message and its possible effects on Smith's murder trial.
The case revolved around messages exchanged between Assistant Medical Examiner Adele Lewis and a male juror, Glenn Mitchell, who was a casual acquaintance of Lewis. In the messages, Mitchell complimented Davis on her testimony about the cause of death and then went on to ask whether she had noticed him sitting among the other jurors. Mitchell wrote, "A-dele!! I thought you did a great job today on the witness stand… I was in the jury… not sure if you recognized me or not!! You really explained things so great!!"
Lewis responded to Mitchell's message by saying that she thought she had recognized the juror, but said that there was a risk of a mistrial if this gets out. Mitchell acknowledged the risk, saying he hadn't mentioned to anyone that he knew Lewis. The next day, an hour after the jury began its deliberations; Lewis emailed the presiding judge to say that a juror had contacted her via Facebook. However, instead of conducting a hearing to examine the nature and impact of the messages, the trial judge simply told both attorneys of the communication and went on to sentence Smith to life behind bars.
Smith appealed the case to the Tennessee Court of Appeals and eventually the Supreme Court, arguing that the jury's ruling should not have been heard until it was clearly established that the Facebook messages had no impact on their decision, something that was never determined at the trial level.
To read the full opinion, click here.
Source:"Tenn. murder conviction overturned over Facebook message," by Brian Wilson, published at USAToday.com.
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