December 19, 2006
Filed under News
Mesa student Jaclyn Spencer-Pierman looks at her college’s student newspaper, nodding her head, in awe.
There’s a blow-up photo of a 20-year-old male, drinking what appears to be alcohol from an apparent mason jar. The picture was taken from his MySpace.com account and printed in the newspaper next to his arraignment photo after he was charged Nov. 20 with a 3 a.m. hit-and-run, resulting in the death of 19-year-old Whitney Young.
“I’ll bet you in a million years this guy would have never thought that his MySpace could get to him in a trial,” Spencer-Pierman said.
Every week, 500,000 new users sign up for MySpace.com, a social-networking Web site, according to Mashable.com. Even though the Web site has allowed people to meet and network around the world, MySpace.com has also allowed parents to investigate their children; bosses, their employees; stalkers, their victims. Now, with Eric Joseph Leeman and other cases, the social-networking Web site has found its way into the legal arena, where the Web site can give media outlets and litigators personal information that might change outcomes in trials.
Defense attorney Kerry Steigerwalt has had at least two cases that have been affected by MySpace.com.
In one example, a supposed victim of rape was found joking about the incident and partaking in flirtatious discussions on the Web site, he said. They also found compromising photos on the Web site while she was in Las Vegas at an apparent party.
“All of this gives insight to the type of person who truly claims, in this situation, to be a victim,” Steigerwalt said.
In another example, there was a murder case where the victim’s girlfriend was found talking about the incident on MySpace.com. Her story on the Internet was different than the one she had told police. They found that she’d been leaving out possible key witnesses, the defense attorney said.
Steigerwalt acted as legal consultant in the 2002 David Westerfield trial for KUSI and has been featured on “48 Hours,” Court TV, and “The O’Reilly Factor.” He says that the information from MySpace.com can, under certain context, be used directly in court.
“It’s exactly like finding somebody’s diary or journal,” he said. “If they authored it and there is no dispute if they authored it, then those words came from their mouth. They have then the burden of explaining why they said it.”
But, Steigerwalt said, usually MySpace.com information is thrown out in court because of irrelevancy. Instead, according to the defense attorney, the information found on the site is more useful for investigation purposes.
“It adds fuel for investigation,” he said. “Somebody took a picture, other people were around when that photo was taken, and let’s find out who else knows more about the defendant than we would otherwise have leads to.”
Criminal Defense Attorney Julie Brown, who has been practicing law for 16 years, said this process is called discovery. Discovery is information that is learned about the defendant or the victim or any witness that may lead to admissible evidence.
“You may find something on the Web site that is not necessarily admissible into evidence,” she said. “But it may lead to something that could be.”
While MySpace.com information may not always be admissible in court, it can be used by the media and can sway the opinion of the public and possibly affect a defendant’s jury pool.
University of Southern California Associate Journalism Professor Judy Muller said that there is no privacy on the Internet. An ABC News correspondent and National Public Radio commentator, she covered the Rodney King trial, the Los Angeles riots, and the O.J. Simpson trial.
“The minute you put something in an e-mail or on the Internet, you can forget any privacy,” she said. “It’s in the public.”
After many media outlets posted Leeman’s MySpace.com photos, where he appeared apparently drunk for the public to see, his defense attorney, Roseline Feral, accused the media of destroying her client’s right to a fair trail.
“They portrayed him already as this horrible person,” she said. “I wish the media would be more sensitive to what they’re doing to this kid.”
Muller, however, said it is the defense attorney’s job to make sure his or her client gets a fair trail with an impartial jury and that MySpace.com is a public forum and therefore fair game for quoting. Young people are often reckless with this Web site, she stated, and think they have a measure of privacy.
“They don’t,” she said. “Whether it’s good taste to quote from it is another story.but legally there is no problem. This is a defense lawyer’s worst nightmare. A client who brags about his drinking on an Internet site, showing himself in states of apparent intoxication in photos on an Internet site, with a previous DUI, and admits that he hit something.”