Witnesses being exposed to retribution for their testimony is not a new thing. After all, the Witness Protection Program was established by the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970. But this was primarily an “organized crime” phenomenon. With today’s 24-hour news cycle fanning the flames of public indignation over high profile cases, and the ubiquity of electronic and social media, witnesses, and others involved in high profile cases, face a new kind of threat – harassment and intimidation by electronic media. The Witness Protection Program provides physical security for those witnesses who may be in danger of bodily harm, or even death, and this protection is extremely expensive. As for electronic intimidation and harassment, a solution, so far, evades us.
Electronic harassment has been an unfortunate byproduct of the internet age and social media. The internet provides would-be harassers with a “cloak of anonymity,” which seems to encourage even casual harassers to send intimidating e’mail’s and texts. And sometimes worse than that, hackers will publicly post the personal information of witnesses and others involved in a case whom they view to be contrary to their own beliefs. This can happen both during an ongoing trial and post-conviction or post-acquittal; driving witnesses and even jurors into hiding to escape the onslaught wrought by the electronic blitz.
Things have come to the point where Cook County (IL) Chief Judge Timothy Evans is moving forward with a ban on personal electronics in courtrooms. Starting Monday, the Cook County criminal courthouses begin their ban on electronic devices that include cell phones, smartphones, tablets, laptops and “all other electronic devices capable of connecting to the Internet or making audio or video recordings.” Read the HuffPost article here.
One more example is the fact that Alyce LaViolette, a domestic abuse expert, who testified for the defense in the Jodi Arias trial had to be taken to the emergency room for “for anxiety attacks and palpitations” after an online barrage was launched against her. Read the HuffPost story here.
We have previously decried what we’ve called “trial by media” or “trial by website.” This is when the public forms strong opinions about guilt or innocence of a defendant based upon coverage by news media, or when someone becomes dedicated to the guilt or innocence of a defendant, and sets up a website to try to convince others of their beliefs. Of course, the media and the general public cannot possibly have knowledge of all the facts and details involved in these cases, but these strong public opinions can, and do, have influence on the outcomes of cases. For example, they can force a change of venue for a trial, and who knows how jurors might be influenced.
Two other high-profile cases that have also suffered from abuse of the electronic media are the Casey Anthony capital murder trial, and the Steubenville football rape case.
The justice system is not supposed to be “trial and judgement by public opinion.” One would hope that responsible citizens would understand that this activity is malicious, and produces no net positive end result. But alas, I believe that this is largely founded in “human nature,” and what the solution might be is beyond my ken. Perhaps just public knowledge that this kind of stuff happens may help.