The long wait for a verdict in the death penalty trial of Zacarias Moussaoui was interrupted today with the revelation that a juror went home last night and looked up a word in the dictionary. Two things make this worth noting.
First, the word the juror looked up was "aggravating." That turns out to be a key word in the jury's deliberations, because aggravating factors are those that prosecutors want the jury to consider as reasons to impose the death penalty. On the other hand are "mitigating" factors that defense lawyers say are reasons to prefer a verdict of life in prison instead.
Second, the jurors asked on Tuesday to have a dictionary sent into the jury room, and the judge refused. "That's like putting an extraneous piece of evidence in the jury room," Judge Leonie Brinekma told them. "The jury cannot conduct any independent investigation on its own. You can't get on the Internet and look up terms or look up anything related to the case," she said.
Lawyers say the juror apparently thought looking up a word at home in the dictionary was somehow different than looking it up on the Internet. That may seem odd, but it's hard to avoid having some sympathy for the juror. Jury instructions are notoriously complex, frequently long and repetitive, and invariably hard to follow. It's understandable that a conscientious juror might want to resort to a dictionary.