Crime & Courts

Judge tosses juror in jail for using cellphone; appeals court overturns order

Wilson County Superior Court Judge Milton Fitch sent a jury foreman to jail for using his phone. Now the North Carolina Appeals Court has ruled that Fitch acted to rashly
Wilson County Superior Court Judge Milton Fitch sent a jury foreman to jail for using his phone. Now the North Carolina Appeals Court has ruled that Fitch acted to rashly The Wilson Times

A jury foreman using his cellphone during a break in the trial?

Thirty days! said the judge.

Not so fast, the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday.

The appeals court has set aside the contempt of court charge levied by an Eastern North Carolina judge against Christopher Korfmann. But the case – which included the judge’s angry lecture in open court – illustrates the growing tension in courthouses over the pervasiveness of technology.

A year ago, Wilson County Superior Court Judge Milton Fitch declared a mistrial after Korfmann admitted in court that during a lunch break he had used the note-taking app on his cellphone to jot down questions and notes about the ongoing trial. Called into the courtroom and ordered to stand before the angry judge, Korfmann said he had use his phone to jot down details he wanted to remember about the trial because he did not have a pen and a piece of paper handy. A fellow juror turned him in.

“And who were you going to ask those questions of?” Fitch asked.

“They were questions I was planning to ask you, sir,” Korfmann replied, according to the appeals court opinion.

After additional back-and-forth, Fitch told Korfmann to sit down.

“The court takes the strong position that technology is not be utilized by jurors and, in fact, this jury has been warned several times not to use,” Fitch said.

“Sir, I think that what I’m going to do with you is I am going to send you to Wilson County Jail for 30 days for failing to follow the order given to you by this Court.”

Korfmann spent six days in jail before being released on bond, court records indicate. He then appealed Fitch’s order.

The appeals court ruled that Fitch was too reactive – that Korfmann had the right to be warned that the judge planned to charge him with contempt of court, and thus given a chance to prepare.

The tension between technological links between the jury box and the outside world has played out in high profile Mecklenburg County cases. During the jury selection for the manslaughter trial of Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Officer Wes Kerrick last summer, prospective jurors complained about personal information the media was reporting about them. An angry Superior Court Judge Robert Irvin banned the use of cellphones and computers to post live updates from inside his courtroom.

One final detail in Wilson County: It appears Korfmann still hasn’t gotten his phone back.

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