Google effect worries judge in Viktor Bout trial

7th September 2011, Comments 0 comments

The US judge overseeing the arms trafficking trial of Viktor Bout expressed concern Wednesday that the ex-Soviet air force officer is so notorious that a Google search could ruin a juror's impartiality.

Portrayed by Nicolas Cage in the film "Lord of War," targeted by the United Nations, and finally extradited to New York after a US sting operation in Thailand, Bout has his own Wikipedia page and nearly half a million Google search entries.

Federal Judge Shira Scheindlin said that this could be "a major problem" in making sure that the jury trial, which starts October 11, is fair.

"I'm concerned too," she told defense lawyers at a pretrial hearing in New York. "This is an easy case to Google. All you have to do is get the spelling right."

Bout, 44, is alleged to have run a global arms network with his fleet of old Soviet transport planes and a dizzying list of shady contacts across the world's war zones.

The Russian's trial is on the more narrow charges of attempting to sell an arsenal including surface-to-air missiles to Colombia's FARC guerrillas, who in turn allegedly planned to turn the weapons against US aircraft in the cocaine-producing country.

A Google entry of "Viktor Bout" summons about 478,000 entries ranging from a supporters' website, "where the truth is not manipulated," to news headlines like "Viktor Bout's Secrets Frighten the Kremlin."

Jurors in all US trials are instructed not to read about the case in newspapers, on the Internet, or even to discuss the trial with friends -- the idea being that they keep an open mind until deliberations.

But Scheindlin said that in the Internet age, that rule was becoming increasingly hard to enforce, noting, "It's a problem now in any high-profile case."

She said she could not sequester the jury for a trial that could last several weeks.

"I can't seize their computers... I can't lock them up," she said.

Defense lawyers asked the judge to make jurors sign an affidavit pledging not to consult the Internet about Bout, while a prosecutor, agreeing that "we do not want the jury to be tainted," said an admonition from the judge would be enough.

© 2011 AFP

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