West Virginia Appeals Court Grants New Trial Based in Part on Undisclosed MySpace Friendship — State v. Dellinger

[Post by Venkat]

State v. Dellinger, Case No. 35273 (Va.Ct. App. June 3, 2010)

Dellinger is a criminal case where the defendant was accused of channeling funds (which were intended for the purpose of hiring additional DUI-enforcement personnel) to pay for his own inflated hours spent on administrative duties. The defendant was employed as a deputy Sheriff. He moved for a new trial based on the conduct of a juror named Amber Hyre.

Prior to the trial, Ms. Hyre sent defendant a MySpace message:

Hey, I don’t know you very well But I think you could use some advice . . . I can tell ya that God has a plan for you and your life. You might not understand why you are hurting right now but when you look back on it, it will make perfect sence. [sic] I know it is hard but just remember that God is perfect and has the most perfect plan for your life. Talk soon!

During trial, the same juror also posted a message on her MySpace page that she “just got home from Court and getting ready to get James and Head to church! Then back to court in the morning!” [She described her “mood” as “blah”.]

The court set aside the verdict and granted a request for a new trial. Did the juror’s MySpace postings form the basis of the court’s decision?

The court focused on the fact that the juror was not candid about her friendship with the defendant or about her relationship with other witnesses. During voir dire, she never acknowledged a connection with either the defendant or with other witnesses, but it turned out that she used to live in the same apartment complex as the defendant. The juror was also related by marriage to one of the witnesses and her brother-in-law worked for another witness. Although the trial court found that these contacts were “minimal,” and found her to to a “fair and impartial juror,” the court of appeals disagreed.

The court of appeals focused on the juror’s lack of candor and found that bias on the juror’s part must be presumed because she failed to disclose connections to the defendant and two witnesses, despite her connections and despite the fact that other jurors disclosed their connections. Although she tried to justify the fact that she didn’t disclose that she “knew” the defendant, because she didn’t ‘personally know him,’ the court rejected her justification, pointing to the fact that she knew the defendant at least well enough to give him advice via MySpace. Although the appeals court found that the trial court erred in nor granting the request for a new trial, the court agreed with the trial court that the juror’s posting about the trial was “benign in nature.” Standing alone, this would not be sufficient for a finding of juror misconduct.

The case is a reminder that social networking contacts can undermine a verdict. That said, it’s worth noting that a party’s invocation of the Facebook/Twitter/MySpace mantra alone is not likely to be dispositive.

One interesting aspect of the case is the juror’s own views on whether she “knew” the defendant. She testified at the juror misconduct hearing that although she knew him, she didn’t really know him:

I knew in my heart that I didn’t know him . . . I should have at least said that . . . he was on MySpace, which really [wasn’t] important, I didn’t think.

The trial judge’s comments also noted the fact that the trial took place in a “rural area with a small population . . . .” There was ample evidence in the case that the juror was being less than candid, but it’s possible that her conception of MySpace friendship may have differed from the standard definition of friendship, particularly given where she lived. Additionally, at least one court has recognized that Facebook friends may not be all that they are cracked up to be. (Quigley Corp. v. Karkus, 2009 U.S. Dist. Lexis 41296 (E.D. Pa. May 15, 2009) (“‘friendships’ on Facebook may be as fleeting as the flick of a delete button”).) Maybe she was right that she didn’t ‘know’ the defendant, at least based on the MySpace connection? Although a jury instruction instructed the jurors on the use of technology and social media, I’m guessing that the questioning at voir dire did not spell out social networking relationships.

Additional coverage:

Molly DiBianca: “W. Va.: New Trial for Defendant Who Was MySpace Friend of Juror

Health Care Law Blog: “Reversal of Conviction Because Undisclosed MySpace Friendship Between Defendant and Juror