A Tennessee murder trial was ruined after a witness and a juror became friends on Facebook.
During William Darelle Smith’s murder trial, the judge told the jury that they should not talk to any of the witnesses, attorneys, or the defendants. But at the end of the trial, the judge learned that one of the jurors started communicating with a key prosecution witness on the social media website. State justices unanimously decided that a new trial might be necessary.
“If, for any reason, the trial court is unable to conduct a full and fair hearing with regard to juror (Glenn Scott) Mitchell’s improper extrajudicial communication with Dr. Lewis, then the trial court shall grant Mr. Smith a new trial,” the Supreme Court ruled. Smith was sentenced to life in prison in 2010 for the 2007 death of Zurisaday Villanueva.
Glenn Scott Mitchell knew medical examiner Dr. Adele Lewis through work, and sent her a Facebook message after her testimony.
The message read, “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!!”
Dr. Lewis responded, “I was thinking that was you. There is a risk of a mistrial if that gets out.”
The next day, an hour after the jury began deliberating, Lewis contacted Judge Seth Norman and said that she had been contacted via Facebook by a juror with whom she was acquainted. Public defender Mike Engle asked if the court spoke to Mitchell about the exchange, but Norman said, “No, I’m satisfied with the communication that I have gotten with Dr. Lewis with regard to this matter.”
Smith asked for a new trial since the defense wasn’t allowed to question Mitchell. A trial court ruled against him, as did a state appeals court that called the Facebook messages “mere interactions.” The Tennessee Supreme Court overruled those decisions and said that juror must be held “accountable to the highest standards of conduct.” The Supreme Court then sent the case back to trial court for a hearing on Facebook communication and jurors’ impartiality.
“Even though technology has made it easier for jurors to communicate with third parties and has made these communications more difficult to detect, our pre-Internet precedents provide appropriate (guidelines),” the ruling said. “Trial courts should clearly prohibit jurors’ use of devices such as smartphones and tablet computers to access social media websites or applications to discuss, communicate, or research anything about the trial.”