Jury Can’t Rely on Wikipedia But Circuit Does — Jury Verdict Overturned Due to Juror’s Consultation of Wikipedia During Deliberations in Direct Violation of Instruction — Reliability Questioned

United States v. Lawson, 677 F.3d 629 (4th Cir. 2012) (overturning a criminal conviction because a juror consulted Wikipedia for a definition of “sponsor”):

Six days after the jury returned its verdict finding Lawson guilty on all charges, one of the jurors, Juror 1, informed a courtroom security officer of potential juror misconduct. Juror 1 stated that another juror, Juror 177, had consulted certain internet sources the morning before the jury reached its verdict. As later found by the district court, this information included the definition of the term "sponsor" that appeared on Wikipedia.

Footnote 11. Juror 177 also researched the definition of the term "exhibit," an alternative element of the offense, on Merriam-Webster.com, the internet version of the Merriam-Webster dictionary. While several members of the jury were aware that Juror 177 had researched the term "sponsor," none of the jurors was aware that Juror 177 also had engaged in research of the term "exhibit." Because the juror's use of Wikipedia for the term "sponsor," standing alone, is determinative of the result we reach on the issue of juror misconduct, we focus our analysis only on the juror's use of Wikipedia.

Juror 177 used a computer printer at his home to reproduce the Wikipedia entry for the term "sponsor," and later brought the printout to the jury room when the deliberations resumed. Juror 177 shared the printout with the jury foreperson, Juror 185, and also attempted to show the material to other jurors, but was stopped when some of them told him it would be inappropriate to view the material. These actions violated the explicit instructions of the district court, which had admonished the jurors not to conduct any outside research about the case, including research on the internet.

Footnote 12. The court's careful oral and written instructions admonished the jury as follows: "I remind you that during your deliberations, you must not communicate with or provide any information to anyone by any means about this case. You may not use any electronic device or media, such as a telephone, cell phone, smart phone, iPhone, Blackberry or computer; the internet, any internet device, or any text or instant messaging service; or any internet chat room, blog, or website such as Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, YouTube, or Twitter, to communicate to anyone any information about this case or to conduct any research about this case until I accept your verdict." (Emphasis added.)

After being informed about Juror 177's conduct, the district court held a hearing to determine whether the verdict had been tainted by Juror 177's actions. The district court questioned each of the twelve jurors who had served on the panel for Lawson's trial. During his testimony, Juror 177 admitted that he had conducted internet research, and had brought material obtained on the internet into the jury room during the jury deliberations.

At the time of the hearing, which occurred nineteen days after the jury reached its verdict, Juror 177 no longer was in possession of his original printout of the Wikipedia entry. Nevertheless, Juror 177 provided the district court with documents obtained from Wikipedia a few days before the hearing, purportedly after using the same method he had employed in obtaining the original printout brought to the jury room. ***

We observe here another aspect of Wikipedia, namely, its reliability. According to the "Wikipedia:About" entry, at least in its form as of April 16, 2012, Wikipedia describes itself as "a multilingual, web-based, free-content encyclopedia project based on an openly editable model." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:About (the "About Wikipedia" entry). Indeed, the "About Wikipedia" entry notes that:

Wikipedia is written collaboratively by largely anonymous Internet volunteers who write without pay. Anyone with Internet access can write and make changes to Wikipedia articles (except in certain cases where editing is restricted to prevent disruption or vandalism). Users can contribute anonymously, under a pseudonym, or with their real identity, if they choose.

Id. The "About Wikipedia" entry further notes that "[a]nyone with Web access can edit Wikipedia . . . . About 91,000 editors--from expert scholars to casual readers — regularly edit Wikipedia." Id.

Given the open-access nature of Wikipedia, the danger in relying on a Wikipedia entry is obvious and real. As the "About Wikipedia" material aptly observes, "[a]llowing anyone to edit Wikipedia means that it is more easily vandalized or susceptible to unchecked information." Id. Further, Wikipedia aptly recognizes that it "is written largely by amateurs." Id.

We observe that we are not the first federal court to be troubled by Wikipedia's lack of reliability. See Bing Shun Li v. Holder, 400 F. App'x 854, 857-58 (5th Cir. 2010) (expressing "disapproval of the [immigration judge's] reliance on Wikipedia and [warning] against any improper reliance on it or similarly unreliable internet sources in the future"); Badasa v. Mukasey, 540 F.3d 909, 910-11 (8th Cir. 2008) (criticizing immigration judge's use of Wikipedia and observing that an entry "could be in the middle of a large edit or it could have been recently vandalized"); Crispin v. Christian Audigier, Inc., 717 F. Supp. 2d 965, 977 (C.D. Cal. 2010) (criticizing [*54] parties' reliance on Wikipedia); Kole v. Astrue, No. CV 08-0411, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 31245, 2010 WL 1338092, at *7 n.3 (D. Idaho Mar. 31, 2010) (admonishing counsel from using Wikipedia as an authority, observing that "Wikipedia is not a reliable source at this level of discourse"); Baldanzi v. WFC Holdings Corp., No. 07-CV-9551, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 2525, 2010 WL 125999, at *3 n.1 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 13, 2010) (observing that Wikipedia "touts its own unreliability"); Campbell ex rel. Campbell v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 69 Fed. Cl. 775, 781 (Fed. Cl. 2006) (observing dangers inherent in relying on Wikipedia entry).

Footnote 28. We note, however, that this Court has cited Wikipedia as a resource in three cases. See Brown v. Nucor Corp., 576 F.3d 149, 156 n.9 (4th Cir. 2009) (citing Wikipedia entry as a second authority for the term "standard deviation"); United States v. Smith, 275 F. App'x 184, 185 n.1 (4th Cir. 2008) (unpublished) (quoting Wikipedia definition of a "peer-to-peer" computer network); Ordinola v. Hackman, 478 F.3d 588, 594 n.4 (4th Cir. 2007) (citing Wikipedia entry for definition of "calcium oxide").

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