Who knew that Wikipedia would become a problem for the U.S. Courts of Appeal?
Last Friday, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned convictions in a case due to the fact that a juror used Wikipedia to educate himself on the elements of the crime. The judge cited several other appeals cases where the credibility of Wikipedia had come into question.
The case involved the criminal conviction of defendant Scott Lawson for his involvement in a cockfighting ring. Under Federal law, sponsoring or exhibiting an animal in a fighting venture is prohibited.
On appeal, Lawson raised several challenges to his conviction. The most interesting one, however, is that Wikipedia contributed to a Sixth Amendment violation of his rights to Due Process.
According to the court’s opinion, a juror made unauthorized use of Wikipedia to educate himself on the elements of the crime of cockfighting. The search was conducted during an overnight recess of the jury during the deliberations and the element searched was the term “sponsor.”
The juror printed out the definition of the term “sponsor” and brought it to the jury deliberations the following day. As he attempted to show it to some jurors, he was warned by jurors that they were not permitted to engage in Internet research on the case.
The court stated that the existence of outside information that was not part of the court record carried a rebuttable presumption of prejudice for the defendant. This, the court said, was precedential in many circuits.
The use of dictionaries has been held non-prejudicial, once the presumption was rebutted. But does the use of Wikipedia enjoy the same treatment?
Given the “open-access” nature of Wikipedia, the court had concerns on the reliability of a Wikipedia definition.
In the end, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Lawson’s conviction as well as the numerous other convictions of his co-conspirators involved in the cockfighting charges.