Facebook contempt of court derails UK drug case

By Dr Melissa de Zwart

A major drug trial had to be abandoned and a juror and an (acquitted) defendant found guilty of contempt of court in the UK High Court, following contact between the juror and defendant on Facebook. This was the first prosecution for internet related contempt in the UK. The juror, Joanna Fraill, a 40 year old mother of three, created a Facebook profile called ‘Jo Smilie’, which clearly showed her image. She then used that profile to make contact with the defendant in the drug trial, Jamie Sewart, (34) who had been acquitted of conspiracy charges that day. The contact was made while the jury was still deliberating on other charges.

The complex multi-million pound trial, being heard in Manchester, had involved multiple defendants and charges and was one of a series of four trials. The high profile contempt proceedings came at a time of increased attention by the judiciary in the UK (and Australia) to issues related to jury members accessing the internet for information and attracted the personal involvement of the UK Attorney-General, Dominic Grieve. The case illustrates not only the allure of using the internet for research, but in particular the deceptive sense of privacy and intimacy created by social networking sites, such as Facebook.

Transcript evidence

A transcript of the Facebook chat, which took place in August 2010, has been made available by The Guardian. That transcript shows that Sewart clearly knew that ‘Smilie’ was a juror and asked her: ‘what’s happening with the other charge??’. ‘Smilie’ had asked her to clarify the question, but then went on to post a little later ‘don’t worry about that chge no way it can stay hung for me lol th’. Smilie was also clearly aware of the risk she was running, posting: ‘cant get anywaone to go either no one budging pleeeeeese don’t say anything cause jamie they could call mmiss trial and I will get 4cked too’.  Sewart reassures her: ‘I know I have deleted all the messages I wudnt do that to u don’t worry xx’. The pair also discuss nods, blinks and smiles that Smilie had been sending to Sewart in the courtroom (although Sewart seems to have been unaware that they were meant for her). Sewart later says that they should keep in touch and that she would get Smilie ‘a nice pressie’ if she got anything ‘out of um’, presumably the ‘compo’ she said she would be applying for. At the heart of the exchange is the sense that Smilie wants to show her empathy with Sewart and to explain that she had felt that she had shared the experience with Sewart, noting that she had laughed and cried along with her during the trial.

Despite her assurances to Smilie, Sewart told her lawyer about the Facebook exchange the next day. This resulted in the seizure of her computer and the bringing of the contempt charges. The jury was discharged and the case collapsed.

Both Fraill and Sewart were found guilty of contempt of court in June 2011. Fraill admitted that she had contacted Sewart, claiming that she had been motivated by her joy that Sewart had been acquitted of the charge of conspiracy to supply drugs, after being on remand for fourteen months and separated from her young child, and because she had felt that there were ‘considerable parallels’ between the womens’ lives which made her feel empathetic to Sewart’s plight. Fraill also admitted to having conducted internet searches on Gary Knox, Sewart’s partner and co-defendant in the trial.

Gary Knox, a defendant who was convicted in the original drugs trial and jailed for six years on charges related to paying a police officer to disclose information relating to drug dealer has also applied to have his conviction overturned on the basis of alleged jury misconduct.

The case was heard by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, Ouseley and Holyrode JJ.

Sentence and observations

Fraill was sentenced to eight months in jail for the contempt. Seward was sentenced to two months, suspended for a period of two years. The contempt action was conducted personally by the Solicitor- General, Edward Garnier QC, who stated that the case was necessary to protect jury integrity. After the trial, Garnier stated that: ‘Jurors should take careful note and know that the law officers will prosecute those who commit contempt.’ He continued:

‘The jury system is a cornerstone of our society and confidence in this vital part of our criminal justice system will crumble if jurors do not take their responsibilities seriously.’

The written ruling of Lord Judge stated: ‘Her [Fraill’s] conduct in visiting the internet repeatedly was directly contrary to her oath as a juror. And her contact with the acquitted defendant, as well as her repeated searches on the internet, constituted flagrant breaches of the orders made by the judge for the proper conduct of the trial.’ The messages exchanged between Fraill and Sewart ‘went much further than the expression of a compassionate concern’. The ruling warned that any similar action by a juror would result in a custodial sentence, such punishments being necessary to maintain faith in the integrity of the jury system. [sky.news.com.au]

In November 2010, Lord Judge had presented a paper to the Judicial Studies Board warning of the prospect of jail sentences for jurors engaging in internet research. He highlighted the risks posed to the jury system by jurors using the internet to search for further information on matters related to the trial. He stated: ‘I do believe that if it is not addressed, the misuse of the internet represents a threat to the jury system, which depends, and rightly depends, on evidence provided in court which the defendant can hear and if necessary challenge. He is not to be convicted on the basis of material which from his point of view is secret material – not only secret material, which is bad enough, but material which may be inaccurate and could also be false.’

Lord Judge concluded: ‘if the jury system is to survive as the system for a fair trial in which we all believe and support, the misuse of the internet by jurors must stop. And I think we must spell this out to them …  yet more clearly. It must be provided in the information received by every potential juror. It must be reflected in the video which jurors see before they start a trial. Judges must continue to direct juries in unequivocal terms from the very outset of the trial. And I should like the notice in jury rooms which identifies potential contempt of court arising from discussions outside the jury room of their debates, to be extended to any form of reference to the internet.’

Facebook ‘friends’

One of the interesting issues raised by this trial, is not so much that Fraill was tempted to discuss the case on Facebook, but rather what Jenny McCartney writing in The Telegraph described as the ‘illusion of intimacy’ displayed in the transcript of the chat. Fraill clearly wanted to be identified by Seward as a friend and ally. Although she had used the internet to search for information on Knox, it appears that she was mainly interested in getting some acknowledgment from Seward that they shared a special bond. Although she had been signalling to Seward in court, it was by no means clear that the signals had been received by Seward. In the same way that for example, fans of a popular musician or actor can gain a sense of contact through receiving a message via Facebook, Fraill sought some affirmation from Seward. This sort of contact would not have been possible in pre-Facebook modes of contact and represents a unique aspect of social network communication. This is an extension of the general problem of jurors being tempted to conduct their online ‘research’ during trials. It is now necessary for jury instructions to specifically prohibit using any internet enabled device to conduct research or to communicate with anyone regarding the case. Whilst this may appear to be common sense, experience suggests that we are still learning how to use Facebook and social networking sites appropriately.

Dr Melissa de Zwart is an Associate Professor in Law at the University of Adeliade.

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