Iowa Supreme Court heads to Red Oak to hear arguments on whether a jury was swayed by social media

By: Rox Laird on October 5th, 2018

The Iowa Supreme Court goes on the road on Oct. 9 to hear oral arguments in Red Oak in a case that deals with the effect of social media on jurors in criminal trials. The argument is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the Wilson Performing Arts Center.

The Court will hear arguments in State v. Christensen. In this appeal, the State seeks further review of a ruling of the Iowa Court of Appeals, which ordered a new trial on the basis of juror misconduct.

Lee Samuel Christensen appealed his conviction and sentence of up to 50 years for murder in the second degree in Emmet County District Court. Christensen was convicted of fatally shooting Thomas Bortvit, 19, an Iowa Lakes Community College student who dated an Estherville High School student, who Christensen had dated earlier.

Christensen argues, among other things, that the trial court erred in denying his motion for a new trial based on jury misconduct, because some jurors violated the judge’s admonitions to refrain from accessing any form of media, including social media.

After the judge learned of a Facebook post that talked of rumors about how a “riot” might occur if Christensen was not convicted of first-degree murder, the jurors were polled. Some jurors had disobeyed the judge’s warning to refrain from accessing social media during the trial, and were aware of the threats against members of the jury, which led to police presence when jurors walked to their cars after announcing the verdict.

The pivotal question is whether jurors were aware of the rumors prior to deliberations and announcing a verdict, or after.

The trial court held that, while there was some testimony about the possibility of a public disturbance, “the greater preponderance of the evidence establishes that it was not until after the jury had reached their verdict that such evidence was discussed.”

The Court of Appeals disagreed, saying “eight of the twelve jurors said they received extraneous information relating to the outcome of the case in the jury room, after they began deliberating,” and at least four jurors remembered receiving the information before the verdict was announced in the courtroom.

“In any event, whether the extraneous information came in before the jurors agreed on a verdict or after the verdict was reached but before it was announced in open court makes little difference because, until a verdict is announced in open court, it is not final,” the appeals court said. “Because the verdict had to be unanimous and the jurors could have changed their minds in open court, we conclude the misconduct was calculated to and with reasonable probability did influence the verdict.”

[Go to the On Brief Cases in the Pipeline page to read the briefs filed in this appeal.]

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On Brief is devoted to appellate litigation, with a focus on the Iowa Supreme Court, the Iowa Court of Appeals, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
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