Young people’s use of social media and mobile technologies to document every facet and event in their lives, including violent and criminal behavior, has drawn national attention to the investigation into an alleged rape of a teenage girl in Ohio.
Not only are the social media being used in support of the pending legal arguments for both the alleged victim and the defendants, but this case and others are creating the potential for a whole new courtroom dynamic between the prosecution, defense, and jury.
Ma’lik Richmond and Trent Mays, two high school football players in Steubenville, Ohio, are charged with raping a 16-year-old girl at two separate parties in August. The names of both suspects, who are juveniles, are being used because a court judge, defense attorneys, and local media made their names public.
The state attorney general’s office, which is handling the case, says both boys participated in raping the girl, who remains unnamed because she is a victim, while she was unconscious. Mr. Mays is also charged with the “illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented material.”
Two days after the alleged attacks was reported to law enforcement, local police confiscated about a dozen electronic devices belonging to all of the individuals involved. The devices were then turned over to the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation, which reviewed tens of thousands of e-mails, texts, and photos. Mays and Mr. Richmond were arrested three days later. They are currently under house arrest.
Prosecutors say a photo taken at the party shows both boys holding the alleged victim by her arms and legs, suggesting her unconscious state. Defense attorneys deny she was unconscious, and claim to have a text message from the girl sent to their client that says, “I know you didn’t rape me.”
Also circulating are text messages posted to some social networks that reference that the rape happened, while the New York Times reports that a second photo snapped by a mobile phone shows the girl naked on a floor. Adding to the digital evidence is a video published online by Anonymous, the international hacker activist group, showing a group of students joking about the assault.
“Is it really rape because you don’t know if she wanted to or not? … She might have wanted to. That might have been her final wish,” one teenager is shown saying, according to CNN.
Local police say they are also tracking a possible video that is purported to show both boys participating in the violent attack.
The role social media plays in violent crimes is a relatively recent phenomenon dating back to the popularity of so-called “flash mobs,” which are public events involving group action that are planned and then executed using social media.
In some high-profile cases, the flash mobs have been used by gangs of youths to carry out the group beatings of strangers. On Sunday, a flash mob was blamed for a riot that broke out in Baton Rouge, La., where 200 teenagers engaged in a fight, causing the mall to be evacuated.
Law enforcement is also increasingly perusing social media sites to learn more about gang activity and get a better sense of when retaliation among certain groups will strike. For example, last year, police departments in Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia announced units to investigate social media behavior among gang factions, which often use mobile technology to plan, and later brag about, violent acts related to turf battles.
In Chicago, the strategy was used to investigate Keith Cozart, a rap star known as Chief Keef, who bragged on Twitter after a rival was gunned down in September. Mr. Cozart was also known for YouTube clips in which he mocked the slain victim.
Another local rapper named Lil Reese, whose real name is Tavares Taylor, came under scrutiny in October following the release of an online video to multiple hip-hop sites that show him severely beating an unidentified woman at a party. He was not charged because the woman could not be identified.
“When your morality is so degraded that you do these thing in the first place, whether it’s beating somebody up or, even worse, raping someone, the appeal for some people is, as a part of that process, to proclaim to the world you did that and have documentation,” Mr. Levinson says.
He cautions against blaming the technology itself, but says that the rapid ease of taking videos and interacting with others is merely enabling certain people to capitalize on their darker predispositions.
“What that suggests is there are some people who unfortunately have violent tendencies, but, to them, it seems a good thing and so that’s why there’s almost this compulsion to make a recording of it to get it out,” he adds.
Indeed, the rise in school bullying has also been attributed to the increased proliferation of social media. According to a report published by the Pew Internet & American Life Project in November 2011, 88 percent of teenagers using social networks have witnessed others being mean and cruel on social network sites. The incidents can then lead to physical altercations.
In the Ohio case, no physical evidence of the alleged rape exists, which means the looming court battle, scheduled for Feb. 13, will focus strictly on the interpretation of the media evidence.
The dynamic is creating a “whole new world” in the criminal justice system, says Lisa Smith, an attorney who specializes in domestic violence cases and who teaches law at Brooklyn Law School. Unlike traditional cases involving DNA, or other science-based evidence, where one side might rely on the testimony of a medical professional to guide the jury through their interpretation of a certain theory, cases involving text messages, mobile videos, and Facebook and Twitter postings as evidence hang on the direct values and behaviors of the jurors themselves.
“The average juror has no way to know which cardiologist is telling the truth,” she says. “But when it comes to Facebook and photos and text messages, they are going to use their own common sense and make judgments based on their own personal experience.”
Today investigators are trained to immediately seek out any digital evidence left behind on phones, tablets, and personal computers, and attorneys are now prepared to argue cases based on the interpretation of those messages and images, Ms. Smith says. What can be recovered can be conversations related to the planning of the crime, the post-discussion of the crime, or video or photo evidence of the crime itself.
Why this is an emerging trend has to do with the relative age of those involved: usually those of the Millennial generation or younger who have grown up with digital media and are conditioned to record and transmit most aspects of their lives – even if those details are criminal.
“In almost every case I’ve seen in the last year involving young people, there’s been some kind of documentation of the incident,” Smith says.
“This is what they do all day long and it doesn’t make any difference with the substance of they’re documenting,” she adds. “There is no thought process. You have to think of it as automatic, regardless of what they document, as it is to breathe. There is no judgment.”