The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
April 19, 2013
An Arizona murder trial, turn media spectacle, has a sinister twist. An expert witness has been vilified on social media in the midst of being subjected to a grueling multi-day cross-examination.
Welcome to the Jodi Arias trial, where people line up every day hoping for a seat in the theatre of the absurd. Thousands of “Jodi-philes” that can’t visit the courtroom in person participate vicariously through their televisions, computers and smartphones. They tweet and text furiously, offering up crackpot conspiracies, rage, concern, often as if their own lives depend on whether Arias is sent to death row.
Arias is charged with killing Travis Alexander, her secret lover. In June of 2008, after hours of lovemaking, Arias killed Alexander. He had been shot in the head, stabbed nearly 30 times, and his throat slit. The question is not whether Arias committed murder, but why?
For three days last week, a domestic-violence expert witness for the defense named Alyce LaViolette held her own against prosecutor Juan Martinez’s cross-examination. In cyberspace LaViolette did not fare as well -- she was annihilated.
By midweek, more than 700 people had panned her book in scathing reviews calling LaViolette a fraud and a disgrace.
Outraged Jodi-philes called organizations that had booked LaViolette for speaking engagements, trying to persuade them to cancel her appearances.
“It’s the electronic version of a lynch mob,” retired Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Kenneth Fields told the Arizona Republic.
Sree Sreenivasan, professor of journalism at Columbia University, said “This is a logical extension of witness intimidation, taken to an extreme conclusion.”
Is the Arias trial a glimpse into the future? Using social media to influence or intimidate witnesses. Well, the future is now.
Criminals have discovered that Facebook is a great tool for witness intimidation. There are a growing number of intimidation cases involving Facebook. Prosecutors have come down hard on those who turn to social media to discourage others from cooperating with police and prosecutors.
In two separate cases in Pennsylvania, prosecutors have brought charges of witness intimidation for threats posted on Facebook.
Philadelphia district attorney Seth Williams recently wrote a letter to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, insisting that the social media site take down a Philadelphia user’s postings which Williams says threaten a witness in a pending gun case.
Some of the posts were taken down, but images of gang members calling for all “rats” to be killed “point blank period” remain.
Can the general public, fans of a trial, collectively, and criminally, intimidate a witness? Judge Fields said, "If it's just the general public and there's no intention (by the prosecution), then there's nothing to be done about it."
The chilling effect of a community of Jodi-philes attacking the credibility of a professional who testifies at trial is not yet fully understood. The impact on future trials of the “slash and burn” media-mob needs rigorous analysis.
At a minimum, the Arias trial has done nothing to enhance the justification for cameras in the courtroom.
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