Remember when the press assumed Chris Jeffries killed Jo Yeats a while ago? He was never charged, and yet he was horrifically demonised in the papers and life will never be the same again for him. People are arrested and released without charge all the time. It could easily happen to any of us. I think we can all agree we shouldn’t be attacking people before they even get to court.
But we do. The internet is a funny thing; it grew outside of authoritarian radar, somehow giving users the impression that cyberspace is different to the real world, with different rules. But we need to remember that our online actions still have real-life consequences, especially when we behave badly en masse, as we seem to when there is a high-profile criminal investigation like the current Sian O’Callaghan murder case.
According to reports, a 47-year-old minicab driver named Christopher Halliwell has confessed and even shown police to a body.
Even if someone has killed someone, and even if they confess, they are not legally a murderer until they are convicted in court. If you call someone a murderer on the internet when they’ve not been convicted, that is libel (defamation, identification, publication) and that person could sue you. So why do people feel so comfortable calling for the hanging of “murderers” who have not yet appeared in court? The accused could end up suing everyone on Facebook, Twitter and any other site who branded him a murderer. (Elton John won a libel case against a newspaper for calling him gay before he came out, even though it later turned out to be true). There have been a few Facebook libel cases now.
It’s quite possible that you could be called up for jury duty on a high-profile case. If someone sees a juror condemning an innocent (until proven guilty) person during the trial, that juror will found to be in contempt of court for talking about the case. This has happened several times following thoughtless Facebook statuses as well.
If posts like these were found after a guilty verdict, they could be used as grounds for appeal on the basis that it shows a juror had already formed an opinion and so the defendant hadn’t been given a fair trial.
Once media coverage becomes too negative, a defendant could claim that he had no chance of a fair trial. This could lead to a case being thrown out and a factually guilty man or woman walking free. No individual Facebooker is likely to be responsible for this, but it’s worth knowing anyway.
It might be unusual, but false confessions aren’t unheard of. And when the police then simply bag themselves an easy conviction, terrible things happen, like mentally troubled Sean Hodgson’s 27 year prison nightmare when he said he killed Teresa de Simone, while the real murderer killed himself out of guilt when the police ignored his genuine confession:http://tinyurl.com/36z4gab
Of course I want to see killers found guilty and punished accordingly, and I know that the things published in the press make it look like a sure thing in this case, and it may be be. But I don’t believe in finding someone guilty before a trial regardless of what we think we know, and that’s exactly what seems to be happening on Facebook, Twitter and even in the press in cases like the Jo Yeats murder and the latest killing that has the public all excited.
I agree that that if media reports are to be believed then it looks like it’ll be a quick trial, and Halliwell may well plead guilty. But that hasn’t happened yet. When this case is over, even if it ends the way we may expect it to, there will be more high-profile trials and sooner or later someone is going to get themselves into trouble with a Facebook status.
Do we really have enough blind faith in the police and press to believe that the information we receive is genuine and unfiltered?
Are we arrogant enough to believe that we are so damn smart that we can deem someone guilty without trial, based on scraps of “evidence” we gather in the scribblings of journalists?
I do hope not.