Jurors and prospective jurors (and that includes just about everyone), let the case of Peter Kearney be a lesson to you. He was a juror in a criminal case in Atlantic County - and he's lucky he's not in jail.

Kearney was one of 12 jurors in the case of William Simkins, who was accused of vehicular homicide and leaving the scene of an accident. Simkins was charged with chasing down three teens on bikes after seeing one vandalize his mother's car. He fatally struck Jacob Broschard, 16.

The jury acquitted Simkins of the vehicular homicide charge but found him guilty of leaving the scene of a fatal crash.

That should have been the end of the case, but a co-worker of Kearney's went to Simkins' attorney and told him the juror had read news stories about the case and discussed the case with others - a clear violation of the judge's instructions to the jury.

That triggered several hearings and a request for a new trial - and got Superior Court Judge Michael Donio pretty darn angry.

At least three times each day during the trial, Donio instructed jurors not to read or watch any news coverage of the case or to do their own investigation of the case.

Why is that so important? Well, a fair and impartial jury is key to how our judicial system operates. Jurors are supposed to reach their decision based solely on the evidence presented in court. And that evidence is subject to all kinds of rules to ensure that its presentation in court is fair to both parties.

For example, by reading news coverage of the case, Kearney discovered that the state had attempted and failed to get photos of the victim's body admitted into evidence. Such arguments are made without the jury present so as not to prejudice the proceedings.

Ultimately, Donio denied the request for a new trial, noting that the articles should not have prejudiced Kearney and that he did not share anything about what he read with fellow jurors.

But the judge did find Kearney guilty of contempt of court and fined him $1,000. And Donio said he "seriously contemplated" jail time for him to send a message to future jurors.

"Kearney should count his blessings that he's not sitting in jail, because that's how close he came," the judge said.

For his part, Kearney has apologized and apparently learned his lesson. "I didn't think this would affect so many people," he said.

Folks, if you are serving on a jury, you'd best take the judge's instructions seriously. The rules are critical to a fair trial, and you can bet the judge is going to take them seriously.