CENTENNIAL, Colo. – A judge's decision to dismiss three jurors in the Colorado theater shooting trial after learning they had been exposed to news reports about the case shows how hard it is to protect jurors from the vast coverage of the trial, which includes a barrage of social media.
The discovery that one juror had heard media accounts of the case and shared details with the other two stalled Tuesday's testimony but did not derail the case, in part because Judge Carlos A. Samour Jr. seated 12 alternate jurors, an unusually large number, aware of the possibility that some would be exposed to news.
"The judge knew that given the attention and the amount of information that's out there, there's a good chance that some jurors are going to disobey him and do what's natural," said Alan Tuerkheimer, principal of Trial Methods, a Chicago-based jury consulting firm.
The dismissals came as the trial entered its seventh week. The first juror said her husband called and told her, on speakerphone, that the district attorney had sent a tweet during testimony, which had been in the news.
The other two jurors, who sometimes socialized with the first juror on breaks, were dismissed because they likely overheard her. The judge questioned the jurors individually about what they had heard, and wasn't convinced they were being totally forthcoming.
He decided against getting rid of a fourth juror who said she had heard the first dismissed woman mention the word "mistrial" but didn't know what it was about.
Samour also refused a defense request to dismiss a fifth juror, who had informed him about the situation, saying she had been honest and wasn't compromised. "Thank you for doing the right thing," he told her when she came forward, visibly distraught.
A total of 21 jurors and alternates remain, with the guilt phase of the trial more than halfway done. The problem could have had greater consequences it had been discovered closer to deliberations, Tuerkheimer said.
A similar situation with fewer alternates might have caused a mistrial, he said.
Samour instructs jurors daily not to consult with outside sources, but it's difficult. Jurors are allowed to go home every night, but they can't discuss the case with anyone or see or read anything about it. They are, however, allowed to use their phones on breaks. While being questioned Tuesday, some admitted they sometimes see headlines about the trial while online.
"It's so ingrained now for us to use social media in so many aspects of our life, that to completely shut it down, it's hard for folks," said Thaddeus Hoffmeister, a University of Dayton law professor who has studied juries, social media and the legal system. "They tell the jurors not to get outside information. But it happens."
The bigger the case the harder the coverage is to avoid. The judge in the Boston Marathon bombing trial chose six alternates, likely for similar reasons. But none of them were dismissed before deliberations.
Jurors aren't alone in their missteps.
Last week, the judge scolded District Attorney George Brauchler for tweeting from the courtroom about a videotaped interview of Holmes that was shown to jurors. Brauchler told the judge it was an accident and apologized.
The tweet and defense requests for mistrials were discussed while jurors were away from the courtroom, so they could have known about them only from outside sources, such as social media or news reports.
Under questioning from Samour, the first juror dismissed said she got the call from her husband during lunch last week, asking her about Brauchler's tweet while another juror was sitting next to her.
The juror said she and her husband argued because he knew she wasn't supposed to discuss the case.
When asked why she didn't report the incident, she responded: "I just really don't pay attention to my husband most of the time. So it wasn't really important, at that time."
The juror wiped away tears when Samour told her she was dismissed. During jury selection, the mother of three said she did not follow the news and said staying away from coverage about the trial would not be a problem.
The jury selection process took nearly three months after 9,000 summonses were sent.
None of the jurors and alternates selected will know who will decide the case until deliberations are about to begin. At that point, the remaining alternates will be dismissed.
Associated Press writer Donna Bryson contributed to this report from Denver.