Admissibility of Evidence at Trial
If the goal for a trial is the search for justice, why should there be rules that limit a juror’s ability to render a verdict only to that information gathered in compliance with the Constitution and approved by the judge?
Part of the search for justice is making sure that the evidence admitted at trial satisfies the constitutional criteria distinguishing admissible evidence from inadmissible evidence. In large part, the rules of evidence in a criminal trial are expressly designed to protect the constitutional rights of persons suspected of criminal activity by the police. If there were no such rules, it would be difficult if not impossible to control the ways that police secured evidence on the street. In fact, prior to the modern era of American criminal justice, police routinely arrested suspects without probable cause, deprived them of counsel, food, water, and bathroom facilities, and even beat them to obtain confessions that were later used to convict those defendants at trial (Schmalleger, 2010).
To understand the reason that jurors may not hear evidence unless that evidence meets the requirements established by The Constitution and by applicable case precedents, it is helpful to focus on the purpose that those restrictions serve. The only remedy to prevent evidence seized in violation of constitutional rights is to exclude that evidence from introduction at trial. So, it is not as much the intention of the applicable restrictions that jurors be deprived of evidence that is potentially relevant (Schmalleger, 2010). Rather, the intention is to remove the natural incentive of police and prosecutors to obtain evidence outside of the rules necessary to protect the accused. Even where evidence is seized constitutionally, judges still have an important role in determining whether introducing that evidence is likely to lead to a just outcome. In that regard, the standard used by judges is whether the “probative value” of the evidence is greater than its “prejudicial effect” (Zalman, 2008).
How reliable is the internet for factual reports about the people, places, and events that might influence a juror’s decision to convict? Is Facebook or Twitter a valid source to form an opinion about the truthfulness of a witness or the honesty of a victim? Are blogs, websites, wikis or search engines like Google unbiased sources of news and information?
The Internet is notoriously unreliable as a source of credible information, mainly because it is entirely unregulated. Social media would not be a reliable source of truthful information for several reasons. For one thing, people routinely present themselves in the best possible light on social media and may misrepresent the truth to make themselves look good to others. For another thing, comments posted on social media by others may be entirely untrue and represent someone unfairly in ways that could conceivably influence jurors. Even if social media information were accurate and truthful, the rules of evidence still exclude many forms of evidence because they are not relevant in a legal sense to the issues at trial (Zalman, 2008). Therefore, it would undermine the fairness of the judicial system to allow jurors unrestricted access to information that is not admissible under the rules of evidence.
Should videos posted on YouTube by or about a police officer serve as a basis for evaluating his/her testimony? Does belonging to a group or “liking” a gun club, animal rights organization, political party, or pro-abortion group worthy of consideration in a search for justice?
The short answer is it depends on the situation. Generally, it would probably be more prejudicial than probative to allow jurors to consider unrelated information of this type about a police officer. However, where a judge determines that there is a specific relevance to the information, such as where it obviously contradicts his testimony at trial, it may sometimes become more probative than prejudicial to allow jurors to consider that information (Zalman, 2008). For example, where a police officer stands accused of violating someone’s civil rights out of racial animus, his online membership in a racist organization and his racist statements in that forum would become highly relevant and obviously much more probative than prejudicial.
Schmalleger, F. (2010). Criminal Justice Today: An Introductory Text for the 21st
Century. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
Zalman, M. (2008). Criminal Procedure: Constitution and Society. New Jersey: Prentice
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