Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

February 2, 2014

Guilty on Facebook and Twitter? Social media invading justice system

— — In more than 20 years in this business, I have never had one of my columns discussed in open court or introduced as evidence. Yet it happened last week at an interesting change of venue hearing for John Spaulding, a Mercer County man accused of 57 child sexual assault and child pornography charges.

Interestingly, the column, which was published last Sunday, was not about Spaulding or his alleged crimes. Instead, it focused on alleged sexual predator Jonathan Kirk, a former PikeView High School teacher and coach accused of multiple sexual-abuse related charges involving students.

The column applauded Circuit Court Judge William Sadler for rejecting a plea deal struck by Kirk’s defense and the prosecutor’s office, and also delved into the plethora of pleas seen in Mercer County in recent years.

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When I was served with a subpoena last Monday morning, it was not a big deal. I was ordered to bring copies of all articles published relating to John Spaulding and Kimberly Cox, an original co-defendant in the case, to a hearing on Thursday.

Dutifully, I gathered up the requested papers with the help of newsroom staff and pulled tear sheets. The stories were stuffed into a large envelope marked “Spaulding/Cox” and ready to go by noon on the hearing date. Twenty minutes later I headed to Princeton.

Five minutes or so before the hearing, I met Senior Reporter Greg Jordan and photographer Jon Bolt in the hallway outside the courtroom. They were in attendance to cover the story; and me, well, I was there by court order.

When defense attorney Harold Wolfe approached me before the hearing and asked if the subpoenaed articles included my previous Sunday column, I was a little surprised. I noted the column was about Kirk, not Spaulding, and asked if he needed a copy.

“No,” Wolfe said. He had one.

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Much of Wolfe’s argument during the hearing centered on social media. “This case has generated much more publicity and comment in the social media than any murder case I’ve heard,” Wolfe said. “The social media pretty much universally condemns Mr. Spaulding, and convicts him before we have submitted the first piece of evidence.”

Wolfe said the number of social media comments about Spaulding’s case had “exploded” in recent weeks, and he had not had time to survey potential jurors about their current opinions on the case.

To be accurate, one reason Spaulding’s case has generated more interest on news sites and social media is because it is actually going to trial. Many of our homicide cases in recent years have been of the four-stories-or-less variety: murder occurs; alleged murderer arrested; alleged murderer pleas; convicted murderer sentenced.

Had these cases been tried, and not a product of a plea deal, there would have been much more coverage of evidentiary hearings, pretrial motions and the like. More hearings means more stories. Plus, Spaulding had a co-defendant, which translates to routine coverage times two.

Also, Spaulding’s alleged victims are children, and when our readers believe children have been abused it tends to raise their ire.

Has the community already convicted Spaulding of his crimes in an outcry on social media? Maybe. The bigger question is how many of those commenting on Facebook and other social sites will be sitting in the jury box on Feb. 4.

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I was a little surprised when Wolfe’s first piece of evidence introduced at the change of venue hearing was my Sunday column. The defense attorney said the article represented the public’s attitude toward making plea agreements with defendants like his client.

Although the column focused on an entirely different case, two key players in the Kirk saga — prosecutor Sitler who negotiated his deal and Judge Sadler who rejected it — were also sitting at table and bench for Spaulding’s hearing.

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On a somewhat lighter side to the story, some folks at the Telegraph were amused that I was updating readers via social media while sitting in the courtroom. Arriving back at the office, Publisher Randy Mooney joked he was waiting for the next big headline: “Editor charged with contempt for tweeting during hearing.”

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No matter one’s opinion of those charged with heinous crimes against children, it is important to recognize the impact of social media on the judicial process.

Justice may be served with timeworn procedures inside the hallowed walls of age-old courtrooms, but social media will continue to flitter around its edges — and perhaps ultimately invade — with a healthy dose of opinion, debate and a smattering of snark.

Does this translate to influence on the jury pool? We may find out in the coming weeks.

Samantha Perry is editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at sperry@bdtonline.com. Follow her @BDTPerry.

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