Metra has gone to the Illinois Supreme Court, asking them to overturn the verdict in a case where a juror gave a running commentary in her personal blog, in apparent defiance of a judge’s admonitions not to discuss the case.
The saga began in January of 2004, when a 34-year-old man named Scott Eskew was struck and killed by a Metra train near the commuter station in west suburban Berwyn. The family sued Metra and the Burlington Northern railroad, and in 2009, won a $4.7 million judgment.
After the trial, Metra learned that one of the jurors, Eve Bradshaw, kept a running commentary of her courtroom adventures in her personal blog called “The Green Room.”
“Today I got selected to serve on a jury,” the woman wrote, August 9, 2009. “I am in heaven.”
Two days later, she enthused about her hopes of being the team leader.
“I’m totally going to lobby to be the jury foreman,” she said. “In the jury room we were talking about the voir dire process, and how we could tell when folks were lying.”
To Metra, it was a clear breach of courtroom protocol.
“A blog is in direct violation of these admonishments they are given, and could lead to improper influences on the jury,” declared Metra attorney Tim Eaton. “Do we really want jurors during a trial, giving their impressions about what’s going on in that courtroom?”
Indeed, in her blog, the juror wrote about actual testimony, noting that in one case, an attorney “ripped (a witness’s) testimony apart. If this guy had a tail, it would have been between his legs…”
As she wrote, the woman insisted she was keeping an open mind.
“The other jurors and I are guarding our objectivity fiercely, until the last syllable of testimony.”
But a week into the trial, she gave a troubling account of how one of her fellow jurors had apparently already decided on the railroad’s guilt.
“Well, all that’s left now is deciding how much.”
“Lalalala, I singsonged, holding my fingers in my ears. You have to wait ‘til all the evidence is in.”
But she said the other juror seemed nonplussed.
“How come?” she said. “It’s clear to me who’s at fault.”
After the blog was revealed, Metra lawyers asked to question jurors, to determine the extent of any prejudice. The court refused, and the matter was upheld on appeal.
“We were not given the opportunity to explore how that blog may have affected the verdict,” Eaton said.
But a lawyer for the victim’s family argues that no harm was done.
“It’s really not a big deal at all,” said attorney Mike Rathsack. “All this woman did was keep basically an electronic diary.”
Rathsack says the juror was not in violation of courtroom rules not to discuss the case, because all she did was send out her thoughts, with no feedback.
“They don’t tell you not to communicate,” he said. “what they don’t want you to do is discuss it, and there was no discussion here.”
“The trial court abrogated its duty to guard defendant’s rights to a fair trial,” Metra’s lawyers write in their brief to the high court, calling the blogging controversy “a question of general importance that requires this Court’s careful consideration.”
Rathsack agrees that the court should make a statement on the matter, but suggested that as social media become more and more pervasive, it will become harder and harder to prevent such episodes in the future.
“This is going to be an ongoing problem around the country that you can’t stop,” he said. “You’ve let the genie out of the bottle.”