Thursday, September 23, 2010

Will Facebook make fair trial impossible?

Over the past fifty years there has been an ever growing problem in taking people accused of high profile crimes to trial. How do you insure an unbiased jury when the pool has been tainted by repeated reports of facts, speculation and fiction on the case? With the popularity of the internet and the instant reporting of Twitter and Facebook this problem has become even more severe.

Which bring us to the case of a 16 year old alleged victim of gang-rape in Pitt Meadow, British Columbia. The story was reported on CTV News British Columbia by Julia Foy. A group of males allegedly raped her at a rave. The stories are fairly predictable: The men say she consented, the girl and the police say she didn't. Both sides agree that she had taken drugs that night.

A Facebook page, "Support-for-16yr-old-victim-in-Pitt-Meadows" was put up in defense of the girl, and before long a second page, "Reasonable Doubt in Pitt Meadows, was formed to support the alleged rapists.

Not surprisingly, the group supporting the girl has many more friends. Even if you are willing to be open minded and admit that the men may be telling the truth, few people will want to come out and say publicly that none of us know enough to say who's story is true. Especially since the men are guilty of statutory rape, regardless.

I realize that I am, in a sense, perpetuating the problem I am complaining about. I'm probably not going to have much affect on the jury pool, even if they change venue, but as time passes and ever more people are connected the viral nature of the internet will make it harder and harder to find unbiased jurors. As I write this there are 9200 followers of the "Support" pages and a mere 92 followers of the "Reasonable Doubt" pages. Pitt Meadow has a population of about 17,500. I know that not all of the followers are from Pitt Meadow, but the odds are that most are from within the coverage area of local news, which means there probably 9200 potential jurors who have already made up there minds about the case.

This is not one of the things I think about when I talk about the importance of privacy, and the problems of Facebook. But it is a problem. And it is important. Accused criminals have a right to privacy that must be maintained until the trial is over for a fair trial to be possible. To be fair, it's not so much a Facebook problem as it is a human problem, and it would exist whether Facebook allows such groups or closes them down as soon as it hears about them. Add Twitter and the myriad other social networking sites, and we are fast approaching a time when unbiased juries are hard to find. So, admitting that, how can we protect the right of the accused to a fair trial with an impartial jury in an age of instant communication?