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Social Media and the Steubenville Rape Case: As This Case Makes National News, the Role of Social Media in Crime Cases Continues To Evolve

It seems that each day more and more of what we do in our lives revolves around social media. Whether it be Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram  or some other instant access way to express ourselves, post pictures/videos, follow celebrities, or merely get current events at a moment’s notice – we as a society are driven by the lure of instant access. However, something that most people do not think of when they are posting or accessing these social media sites is, “Can what I post hurt me in a criminal proceeding?” The easy answer is no, because very few people ever anticipate getting arrested — but as technology evolves, so do techniques police and District Attorney’s Offices use to bolster the evidence against the criminally accused.

The role of social media in today’s legal system is making national headlines these days, in a  rape case that is unfolding before our eyes in Steubenville, Ohio, where two members of the prestigious Steubenville High Football team have been charged in the sexual assault of a minor. The more and more information that comes out about the case the more the information leads back to someone’s Facebook page, Twitter account, or text messaging. The defendants in this case will be prosecuted on the testimony of the victim and the District Attorney will bolster her credibility with photos and statements made over social media. For example, there is a picture of the two defendants standing – one holding the alleged victims arms and the other holding her feet as she appears to be unconscious. There are posts allegedly associated to the defendants from that social media account that mentions a sexual assault on her and statements bragging about what had taken place.

The case took another dramatic technological turn when last week the defense attorney for one of the accused defendants told a reporter from CNN that he was in possession of a text message from the victim sent to his client the day after the alleged incident where she wrote, “I know you didn’t rape me.”  This text not only puts a large dent in the District Attorney’s case, but calls into question her credibility as a witness at the trial should she accuse that specific defendant of rape – which would be expected. So it will be an interesting game of cat and mouse between the District Attorney and the Defense Attorney to see just how much weight the social media evidence will be given by the Judge and jury.

Technological advances such as social media can be a very good thing, but they can come back to bite you. As criminal defense attorneys we see more and more cases where the District Attorney uses posts, tweets, and text messages from criminal defendants to strengthen their case. Sometimes the evidence from these sites is what ultimately convicts them. Take for example the criminal defendant accused of drunk driving who tells the police and then subsequently his lawyer that he/she cannot be guilty because they weren’t even drinking that night. And then the surprise of it all when the District Attorney comes to court and hands over that defendant’s Facebook page with pictures of him/her from the night in question at the local bar with an alcoholic beverage in hand.

It is imperative that we as a society look at social media for all that it does for us … but always keep in mind that what we post, tweet, and text is being kept alive for all to see – whether we anticipate it or not.   As we wait and see what happens and what role social media will have on this particular high profile case as the defendants go to trial in February, we know that social media will play a prominent role in the proceedings.  Receiving a fair trial, after the world has seen Facebook and Twitter postings that can’t be erased from the mind, will prove to be difficult – and may have a profound effect on the legal system when it comes to “electronic evidence” and the impact of social media today.

If you have any questions about the role of social media and the law, or if you are need of any type of legal counsel, our attorneys are here to help and are available 24/7 at  516-294-0300.

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