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Internet intimidation of witnesses, court officials escalating

“When I started as prosecutor, the intimidation was a lot more direct,” says one former prosecutor who now works for the Vera Institute of Justice. “It’s a new frontier and being done in ways we never could have imagined before. We see a lot more people being intimidated through Facebook and even on Twitter.”

With the advent of social media, the justice system is struggling with how to respond to a new way for certain people to attempt intimidate witnesses, prosecutors, judges and even jurors: social media. With camera-equipped smart phones ubiquitous, Internet harassment is both difficult to prevent and hard to prosecute due to the complexity of collecting and using electronic evidence against the offenders.

In cases ranging from gang-related crime to domestic violence, it’s often hard for prosecutors to convince victims and witnesses to testify in the first place. In many areas there is a strong “anti-snitch” culture, and the relative anonymity of the Internet appears to embolden people in this area much as it does in the comments section of online articles.

“There’s a sense you can hide behind it,” said the former prosecutor. “People are setting up fake accounts. We didn’t imagine this would be some kind of a problem.”

With a fake account, for example, the process of obtaining the electronic evidence that could reveal the account holder’s identity involves sending subpoenas to the phone company or Internet provider for the account holder’s subscriber information and IP address.

Moreover, unlike the National Security Agency’s rumored ability to obtain phone records easily, state law enforcement agencies’ access to such information is not nearly so absolute. Even with full cooperation from the companies it can be hard to prove that a particular person posted any specific threat, according to a computer forensics and digital evidence consultant interviewed by the ABA Journal.

Witness tampering and intimidation via social media has taken a variety of forms, from posting a witness statement on Facebook with the comment “kill all rats,” to photographing an 12-year-old alleged victim of child molestation while she was on the stand and broadcasting it on Twitter. In an Ohio murder case, a friend of the accused filmed the prosecutor and the jury for eight minutes before he was noticed, terrifying jurors.

On the other hand, cell phone cameras can also be used to fight witness intimidation, as well, points out the deputy chief of criminal prosecutions in Cook County, Illinois. “We had a situation where someone was trying to intimidate one of our witnesses the old-fashioned way,” he told the ABA Journal. “So one of them took out her phone and took a video of the guy making threats.”

Source: ABA Journal, “Witness harassment has gone digital, and the justice system is playing catch-up,” Kevin Davis, August 1, 2013

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