Judge, jury and Facebook

Pam Frampton
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Searching for the truth amid all those lies

“Justice denied anywhere diminishes justice everywhere.”

— Martin Luther King Jr.

When I was a kid, rumours were spread through hushed conversations at adults’ social gatherings and through whispered phone conversations.

The snippets I was able to glean through eavesdropping were intriguing.

“I heard he told her the baby couldn’t be his and. …”

“And then, my dear, she had to leave him there — he’d had that much to drink and. …”

“It wasn’t even his car, and now they’re left with that bill on their hands and. ...”

These were fascinating conversations. Who knew that in an outport where everyone knew each other, there was any possibility of secrets and lies?

Those were definitely gentler times — whiffs of idle gossip and hints of low-level personal crises.

I’ve never been a fan of gossip, though I don’t deny my childish curiosity about what people were talking about.

But today, thanks to the Internet, the ears receiving all that hush-hush information can be listening all over the world.

Thanks to Facebook, Twitter, blogs, media sites that allow anonymous web comments, call-in radio shows and other venues, there are plenty of lies but precious few secrets.

Smouldering rumours that used to be geographically contained thanks to the high cost of long-distance phone calls can now be spread like wildfire by clicking “send” on your computer.

Witness the recent rash of postings surrounding the discovery of Ann Marie Shirran’s body and the second-degree murder charge laid against her boyfriend — the father of their one-year-old son.

Anyone with a keyboard and a caustic opinion can spew bile electronically and with relative anonymity, and no one can hold them accountable to the facts.

Jumping the gun

Based on circumstances so far, the police seem to have carried out a thorough, careful and discreet investigation and were so well-organized as to be able to lay a murder charge against David Folker less than 24 hours after Shirran’s remains were identified.

And yet check out the tenor of some of the comments online.

Here’s one posted on cbc.ca:

“l wonder how many calls to police were ignored … that happens also … police don’t think domestic fights are important enough and everything is fine the next morning. …”

Where’s the factual basis for that?

Many of the comments have convicted Folker before the matter has even gone to trial. Anger is understandable given the horrible circumstances, but still, there is a judicial process that must be followed. Guilt must be proven, not assumed.

“Feed the punk to the sharks,” someone wrote on thetelegram.com. “Of course, they would probably puke him up.”

Now, if Folker is found guilty of the charge, I will be as pleased as anyone if he is given the toughest sentence possible, even though that can never bring the victim back or erase her family’s pain or reunite a young boy with his mother.

But I wonder sometimes how the online rush to judgment could affect someone’s ability to receive a fair trial.

In a province with as small a population as Newfoundland and Labrador, is there anyone who hasn’t checked out the tribute Facebook site dedicated to Shirran, or the “Davy Folker is innocent” site started up by his cousin, or read the many damning comments on media sites?

Smouldering rumours that used to be geographically contained thanks to the high cost of long-distance phone calls can now be spread like wildfire by clicking “send” on your computer.

We’re not talking idle chatter in a supermarket aisle; we’re talking polarized debate accessible to anyone, anywhere, with access to the Internet. And it endures.

If the matter should go to a jury trial, will there be anyone who hasn’t already reached a conclusion about whether Folker is guilty or innocent?

Cases in point

Writing in The Toronto Star in January, reporter Jesse McLean described a case where a tribute website for a murdered two-year-old Oshawa boy was breaking a court-ordered publication ban that was supposed to protect the identity of the boy and his mother and — since he was the mother’s 26-year-old boyfriend — the accused.

People posting to the site apparently theorized about the manner of the toddler’s death and posted photos of the victim, thereby breaking the ban.

The Star interviewed Paul Burstein, president of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association, who acknowledged the legal dilemma.

“The repercussions could be significant,” the article said, “as the information could taint the opinions of potential witnesses or jurors. A serious breach of a publication ban could lead to a mistrial, as well as a fine and even jail time.”

In Tennessee in 2007, Peter Page wrote an article for the National Law Journal on website law.com, describing how a “defense attorney is arguing for a change of venue in a racially charged double murder by citing postings on Internet blogs along with newspaper and television reporting — a move that legal observers say may become more common.”

The article said, “Attorney Philip Lomonaco of Knoxville, Tenn., called the Internet ‘the largest unregulated source for information’ in the community, and said it had been used to

‘outrage and taint any jury pool’ that could be seated to hear the case …”

Time for respect

The murder of Ann Marie Shirran is devastating for her family and many friends. Her seven-week-long disappearance and the subsequent discovery of her body, discarded in a lonely spot just outside Cappahayden, touched many people in the province and in the country.

How could anyone not be touched by that? How could anyone not want justice to be served?

But if we truly want justice, we’d best be careful what we say, where and to whom, until the legal proceedings have run their course.

To taint a jury or cause a mistrial hardly seems like a fitting way to pay respects, express condolences or honour someone’s life.

Pam Frampton is The Telegram’s story editor. She can be reached by e-mail

at pframpton@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: The Star

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, The Toronto Star, Oshawa Tennessee Knoxville, Tenn. Cappahayden

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