Emotions often run high in criminal cases, and the higher they run the greater the likelihood that a defendant may be wrongly convicted.
History is replete with news-media fueled hysteria leading to false allegations and convictions. The 1915 lynching is Leo Frank is one early example. More recently, we saw that in 1989 wrongful convictions explored in the searing new Ken Burns documentary, The Central Park Five, and in the false rape charges filed against three members of the Duke University lacrosse team in 2006.
Another possible injustice is currently unfolding in the Steubenville, Ohio, rape case of two members of the popular Steubenville High School football team. The alleged alcohol-fueled rape of an unconscious 16-year-old girl at a party while other boys supposedly watched and did nothing, has set off an international firestorm.
What makes the media conflagration different in this case is that it has been fueled by bloggers and hackers who contend that other boys should be charged and that authorities are trying to cover up other wrongdoing by people associated with the football team.
Contrary to the narrative perpetrated in the cybersphere, law enforcement was not dismissive of the allegations. The alleged rape occurred on August 11. The girl’s mother reported it to police on August 14. Charges were filed on August 27, the same day that local authorities requested the assistance of the Ohio attorney general’s office for additional investigation.
But that wasn’t good enough for some, particularly a purported local member of the international hacker collective Anonymous who calls himself K.Y.
K.Y. has released a lot of information (and some misinformation) on his LocalLeaks web site. He also has threatened to release the social security numbers and other personal information of people he believes have information on the rape if they don’t come forward.
While some of the information K.Y. has thus-far released might be helpful, much of it seems to be fueled by personal animosity and to have been obtained illegally. (Like some cops and prosecutors, K.Y. apparently feels it’s OK to break the law to make others pay a price for breaking the law.)
This is a new frontier in media-fueled rushes to judgment. While some, including Erika Christakis have expressed concern about this new form of vigilante justice, many in the traditional media have followed the social media’s lead.
What makes this particularly frightening is the instant worldwide distribution via social media of unproven allegations by a masked man who doesn’t mind destroying the reputations of teenagers who may have had nothing to do with the rape in question.
To anyone who cares about justice and the rights of the accused to a fair trial, CNN correspondent Gary Tuchman’s interview with K.Y. should be a cause concern. ”We aren’t the judge nor the jury, but it’s fair to say we are the executioner,” K.Y. said of Anonymous. The hacker added that, because some of the people have ”incriminated themselves” in online tweets and postings, there is no real need to wait for the courts to decide on their guilt or innocence. ”If you think they are guilty, that’s because your conscience is telling you they are guilty,” K.Y. said. Case closed.
Trials often lead to unjust results, particularly in emotionally charged cases. But trials sure beat having the accused subjected to a high-tech lynching by a self-anointed ”executioner” hiding behind a Guy Fawkes mask.