Facebook juror jailed for contempt

Joanne Fraill. PIC: PA

Joanne Fraill. PIC: PA

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The first juror to be prosecuted for contempt of court for using the internet was jailed for eight months today.

Joanne Fraill, 40, admitted at London’s High Court using Facebook to exchange messages with Jamie Sewart, 34, a defendant already acquitted in an ongoing multimillion-pound drug trial in Manchester last year.

Fraill, from Blackley, Manchester, also admitted conducting an internet search into Sewart’s boyfriend, Gary Knox, a co-defendant, while the jury was still deliberating.

Sewart was given a two-month sentence suspended for two years after being found guilty of contempt.

When the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, announced her eight-month sentence, Fraill said “eight months!” and put her head on the table in front of her and cried.

Fraill, a mother of three with three stepchildren, sobbed uncontrollably with her head in her arms, and the judge announced a short adjournment “for everyone to calm down”.

Sentencing Fraill, the judge said in a written ruling: “Her conduct in visiting the internet repeatedly was directly contrary to her oath as a juror, and her contact with the acquitted defendant, as well as her repeated searches on the internet, constituted flagrant breaches of the orders made by the judge for the proper conduct of the trial.”

Later Sewart said: “I really feel for the woman (Fraill). She’s got kids. She apologised and she’s not a bad lady. I really feel for her.”

Fraill hugged relatives who were also crying before she was led away to start her sentence.

Lord Judge, who heard the case with two other senior judges, acknowledged that Fraill was “a woman of good character” and was not involved in an attempt to pervert the course of justice.

But “misuse of the internet by a juror” was always “a most serious irregularity and contempt”.

In a warning to jurors present and future up and down the country, he declared that a custodial sentence for a juror committing similar contempts “is virtually inevitable”.

He added: “The sentence is intended to ensure the continuing integrity of trial by jury.”

He said of Fraill: “Throughout, she was acting on her own inititative, without any oblique motive, and there is no evidence to suggest that she used her searches on the internet in order to exert improper influence on the verdicts of the jury.

“Without in any way condoning her actions in contacting Sewart after Sewart’s acquittal, we carried out an examination of the psychiatric evidence to understand how her own backgound may have led her to wish to commiserate with Sewart’s personal problems arising from the fact that a 14-month period in custody had separated her from her baby.”

But the text of the communications between them “went much further than the expression of a compassionate concern”.

When the question of her Facebook contact was raised with her in the Crown Court, “this woman of good character immediately and unhesitatingly admitted what she had done and apologised for it”.

She then went on to provide evidence against herself of her misuse of the internet throughout the trial, said the judge.

She acknowledged her guilt at the earliest possible opportunity, and for some months now “she has been waiting for the present proceedings to take place, and to know what the consequences of her contempt will be”.

“The effect of all these stresses and strains was virtually palpable here in court,” said the judge.

“There will be an order for immediate custody for a period of eight months.”

Solicitor General Edward Garnier QC, who presented the case in person, said: “The Lord Chief Justice could not have been clearer.

“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.”

He said: “Both of these women were well aware that they should not have been engaging in this discussion.

“The jury system is a cornerstone of our society 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.” Peter Wright QC, apppearing for Fraill, told the judges that her heavily-pregnant daughter, whose expected date of confinement is in late July, had gone into labour and was in hospital, causing Fraill “additional anguish”.

Fraill was a juror in the third of four trials at Manchester Crown Court estimated to have cost £6 million when she contacted Sewart, who had been acquitted of conspiracy to supply drugs.

Her internet activities led to a retrial.

Using the “sender name” of “Jo Smilie”, Fraill told Sewart: “You should know me, I’ve cried with you enough.”

Later Sewart asked about an outstanding charge.

Fraill replied: “cant get anywaone to go either no one budging pleeeeeese dont say anyhting cause jamie they could call mmiss trial and i will get 4cked to0”.

The following day, Sewart told her solicitor about the conversation, triggering the contempt of court action.

Sewart’s boyfriend Knox, 35, was jailed for six years for conspiracy to commit misconduct in a public office.

Today Lord Judge, sitting with Mr Justice Ouseley and Mr Justice Holroyde, rejected Knox’s claim that his conviction was unsafe in the light of Fraill’s misconduct.

The judges also threw out his appeal against sentence.

As Knox stood in the dock, Sewart blew kisses to him from the public gallery.

Lord Judge described the Manchester trial as “a troublesome and exceptional case”.

Two previous attempts to conclude the trial had failed and in each case the jury was discharged.

The third trial began in late May 2010 and Fraill was empanelled as a juror.

Explaining why he was not jailing Sewart, a mother of two from Bolton, for her contempt, Lord Judge said it would not have occurred if Fraill had not taken the initiative and contacted her.

“She responded to the contact made by Fraill in the euphoria of her own acquittal and release from custody, at the same time knowing perfectly well that her contact was a juror and that conversation about the case was prohibited.”

She did not attempt to influence Fraill’s thinking “but rather went along with her comments”.

A “further significant feature” of the case was that Sewart had spent 14 months in custody awaiting a trial at which she was subsequently acquitted.

She was arrested when her daughter was 10 months old, and she was separated from her for 14 months.

When the baby went to live with her grandmother, she unsurprisingly began to treat her grandmother as her mother, and the bond between mother and baby had to be rebuilt.

If Sewart’s jail sentence for contempt was not suspended, mother and child would once again be separated, said the judge.

“We do not believe that the administration of justice needs further vindication by the imposition of a custodial order which, by taking immediate effect, would once again separate them.”

The court imposed a two-month prison sentence, but suspended it for two years.

Fraill’s solicitor, Damian Wall, said after the hearing that his client was “deeply sorry”.

“Mrs Fraill is deeply sorry for her actions that led to these proceedings,” said Mr Wall.

“Her remorse was evident to the court and reflected in the judgment. She is totally devastated at what has happened, and deeply regrets the impact her actions have had, and will continue to have, upon her family.

“The court has heard evidence which showed that Mrs Fraill clearly struggled from the rigours of having to cope with a long and serious case.

“Mrs Fraill did not volunteer to be a juror, rather she undertook her public duty.

“She has been asked whether or not she regrets what she did, and through me she wants to say that she truly regrets what she did, and that she recognises that the role of a juror has always been, and remains, fundamental to achieving justice in each case.

“Mrs Fraill does not seek, in any way, to diminish the seriousness of her actions, rather she hopes that the example that has been set in this case will help prevent any other person undertaking jury service from behaving in the way that she did.”

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