Jailed for Facebook: Be careful who you befriend

Joanne Frail, a 40-year-old mother from Manchester, UK, was recently given eight months jail time for contempt of court. Her crime: engaging in Facebook conversations with Jamie Stewart, a defendant in a large-scale drugs trial in which Frail was a juror.

According to a report in The Independent, when the Lord Judge handed down the sentence, all Frail could muster was a painful exclamation of “eight months!” before laying her head on the table in front of her and crying. It might not seem like a particularly heavy sentence, but this is no hardened criminal. Frail is a mother whose life is, for all intents and purposes, comparatively ordinary and ho-hum.

Stewart, who was eventually acquitted, admitted that she had added Frail as a Facebook friend during the trial. At the time, Frail was operating under the pseudonym “Jo Smile”. Frail felt a certain empathy with the defendant and saw “considerable parallels” in their lives, especially the fact that both women had had to endure prolonged separations from their children due to personal problems.

According to solicitor general, Edward Garnier QC, speaking to The Guardian, “Joanne Fraill and Jamie Sewart’s conduct was a clear contempt of court. Jurors should take careful note and know that the law officers will prosecute those who commit contempt. Both of these women were well aware that they should not have been engaging in this discussion.”

When Frail was approached by the court to answer for her actions, she immediately admitted what she had done and apologised for it, giving full evidence against herself. A copy of the Facebook chat between her and Stewart has been made public record.

“The jury system is a cornerstone of our society,” said Garnier, and confidence in this vital part of our criminal justice system will crumble if jurors do not take their responsibilities seriously. “Long before social networks, the courts have been in no doubt that discussions inside the jury room must stay there. The internet doesn’t make judges’ warnings not to talk about a case or research it any less important.”

It’s yet another cautionary tale to respect the limits of safe social media usage. “Ignorance of the law excuses no one” is a well-worn maxim that’s especially relevant in a time when the nature of our interactions (being increasingly digital) can so easily be tracked, monitored, and subjected to both legal scrutiny and, therefore, legal consequence. Erica Albright’s words, from David Fincher’s The Social Network, come to mind: “The internet’s not written in pencil… it’s written in ink” – tread and type cautiously.



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