The Impact of Social Media Evidence In Court Cases

Posted on January 10, 2013

Today’s teenagers, and let’s face it, even some adults, think nothing of posting the minutiae of their lives to social media outlets for the world to see.  Sites like Twitter, Facebook, and more have become a part of our daily routine and there’s no evidence to suggest that they’re going anywhere anytime soon.

But what happens when the narratives posted to social media suggest criminal acts?  When conversations between social groups indicate that a horrible crime has occurred, when text messages from one teen to another show a troubling lack of disinterest to do anything about that crime, and when videos purporting to show the incident pop up across the internet?  It paves the way for a method of prosecuting criminals that would have seemed alien even a decade ago.

One situation drawing much media attention took place in Steubenville, Ohio and concerns the alleged rape of a teenage girl by two members of the local football team.  What distinguishes this case from others is the way that the crime was treated on social media in the wake of the incident.

Photos uncovered by the investigators appear to have been taken prior to or around the time of the alleged crime, text messages seem to reference the crime, and a video posted by Anonymous, a group of hackers who set their sights on various causes,  appears to show a group of teenagers talking and even joking about the rape.

All of this not only suggests that a crime took place, but it also showcases a startling lack of concern among other persons for the girl’s wellbeing.  All told, investigators obtained about a dozen electronic devices and handed them over to the state’s Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation for further perusal.

The stage is now set for a court battle in which social media will play a crucial role in the eventual outcome.  A law teacher and attorney with the Brooklyn Law School wonders about the impact this will have on juries.  Whereas previous cases would have relied on potentially spotty eyewitness accounts and the testimony of expert witnesses, jurors and judges can now be shown firsthand accounts of an incident from the people who participated.  Such evidence may prove to be damning in many cases.

Many people might wonder why teenagers would be so keen to document the details of a crime on a social outlet.  But the phenomenon is not unique to teenagers.  Police in large cities like Philadelphia and Chicago have begun to investigate gangs through social media, as such groups may plan and talk up the results of their crimes on an online forum.

It’s clear the role of social media in criminal prosecutions will only grow in importance.

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