Consulting Wikipedia Voids Conviction

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Outside research doesn’t help a juror’s cause in Maryland: in a quest for understanding, a juror consulted Wikipedia about two medical terms that may have swayed the juror’s decision to convict a homeless man of murder. Consequently, the Maryland Court of Appeals overturned the conviction and life sentence. The case, Allan Jake Clark v. State of Maryland, was reported in yesterday’s issue of the Maryland Daily Record. According to reporter Steven Lash,

the juror’s Wikipedia search denied Allan Jake Clark a fair trial because “the right to an impartial jury embraces the right to have the case decided exclusively on the evidence that is produced in open court,” the Court of Special Appeals held in an unreported opinion.

Thus, Anne Arundel Circuit Court Judge Paul F. Harris Jr was wrong not to have declared a mistrial upon discovering that juror Alfred Rudolph Schuler had looked up the terms “livor mortis” and “algor mortis” on Wikipedia, an online reference site, and printed out the pages, the appellate court stated in its 3-0 decision.

The reasoning behind the reversal is not news to attorneys: consulting any information outside that presented in the course of the trial is potentially prejudicial and grounds for mistrial. What is interesting is that jurors — and people in general — think nothing of turning to the internet for answers to any question, including the meaning of scientific and medical terms like “livor mortis” and “algor mortis.” Juror Alfred Rudolph Shuler didn’t even consider his actions to be outside research: the article refers to Shuler’s explanation of his activities – ““I did go to Wikipedia and I looked up the meaning of ‘lividity,’” Schuler told his questioners, referring to the general term for blood flow after death. “To me that wasn’t research. It was a definition.”” The trial court permitted the case to continue after discovering printed copies of the Wikipedia entry, thereby muddying the grounds for the conviction.

This wasn’t the first time this year a Maryland court considered this issue. In May, the appellate court overturned a conviction in Wardlaw v. State because a juror had looked up the term “oppositional defiant disorder.”

Researching information on the internet has become second nature to many, to the point where looking up arcane bits of specialized information on Wikipedia, Google, Bing or any other virtual resource is like checking the traffic report on the radio. We are truly in the Information Age, where everyone can become a scholar. All the more reason to apply care in choosing the resources to consult and demanding that those resources be accurate.

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4 comments on “Consulting Wikipedia Voids Conviction

  1. Interesting case Martha. I wonder how this is any different (in the absence of a gag order or sequestration) from seeing a newspaper account? Also, are jurors allowed to look a dictionaries? if so, how is Wikipedia different? This area will be quite interesting as these references become more and more commonplace.

  2. Good questions. Hopefully judges will bring common sense along for the ride as they consider the issues – newfangled technology may make the issues appear novel, but the dangers have all been addressed before in other contexts.


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