April 17, 2013

'Digital lynch mob' assaults expert witness in televised murder trial

Imagine you are testifying in a high-profile murder case being live-streamed over the Internet. Suddenly, an angry mob swarms all over you. More than 10,000 people sign an online petition urging a boycott of your lecture contracts. Your book gets a thousand negative hits on Amazon. You are stalked, and a photo of you dining with the trial attorney is posted on Facebook, implying unethical conduct. You even get death threats.

That is the social media-coordinated avalanche that hit domestic violence expert Alyce LaViolette, testifying for the defense in the capital murder trial of Jodi Arias. The unrelenting cyber assaults so rattled LaViolette that she suffered an anxiety attack that landed her in the emergency room.

But the ER visit may only encourage the cyber-stalkers, who revel online over her discomfiture and obvious emotional deterioration over the course of seven grueling days of court testimony.

This type of Internet mobbing, in which cyber-posses enforce social norms through public shaming, is becoming more and more commonplace. One of the most widely known examples of such Internet vigilanteism was the 2005 case of "Dog Poop Girl," a South Korean woman who gained infamy after she refused to clean up after her dog on a Seoul subway; the harassment eventually escalated to the point that she was forced to quit her university job. 

But what was LaViolette's crime?

The domestic violence counselor had the audacity to opine that Jodi Arias was a victim of domestic violence -- that she was dominated and abused (physically, emotionally and sexually) by the man she eventually killed. Such an opinion bolsters Arias's claim that she killed her ex-boyfriend in self defense.

Murder tragedies as entertainment

Unfortunately for LaViolette, her analysis runs counter to the dominant narrative in a gendered morality play produced by media conglomerate Turner Broadcasting and distributed through its cable channels HLN, CNN and In Session. In this good-versus-evil melodrama, Arias is a psychopathic female who killed a morally righteous man in a fit of jealous rage. Period. End of story. Airbrushed out are all the nuances, the shades of grey inevitably present in any such violent tragedy. 

The burgeoning infotainment industry has perfected a profit-making formula of sensationalized true-crime "reporting" that plays on viewers' emotions, whipping audiences into a frenzy of self-righteous indignation in which they clamor for guilty verdicts -- very often against female transgressors. Nancy Grace's shrill ranting over the Casey Anthony murder acquittal garnered HLN a record of almost three million viewers. More recently, HLN went after another woman, Elizabeth Johnson, suspected in the mysterious disappearance of her baby. 

The Arias case seems Heaven-sent for this voyeuristic style of entertainment, in which vulturous pundits mete out tantalizing morsels of crime "facts" to their addicted audience. Travis Alexander provides titillation from the grave via thousands of graphic emails, instant messages, texts and phone chats in which he degrades his paramour as a "whore," "slut," "corrupted carcass" and "three-hole wonder" whom he can sexually violate at will. For her part, Arias is a demonstrable liar. When her ex-boyfriend was found with a gunshot wound to the head, a slit throat, and more than two dozen stab wounds, she initially claimed innocence. After police demolished her alibi defense, she then claimed that two intruders broke into the home and killed Alexander, before finally admitting to the killing but claiming self defense.

Cast in the starring role of swashbuckling hero in this sordid drama is prosecutor Juan Martinez, a dapper man with a quick mind and an acerbic style, whose meteoric rise from the son of Mexican immigrants to a top government attorney is the stuff of American legend. Women line up outside the Maricopa County, Arizona courthouse, swooning at the sight of him as they jockey for photographs and autographs.

"This is murder trial as entertainment," Josh Mankiewicz, a correspondent for NBC's Dateline program (which ran two segments on the case), told reporter Michael Kiefer of the Arizona Republic. "This is not a trial like O.J. (Simpson's) that sheds new light on society. This is not about race or money. It's a perfect tabloid storm. It is occurring in the absence of any other tabloid storm."

Nancy Grace, "Dr. Drew" and the other pundits capitalizing on such trials foster a false sense of intimacy by calling everyone by first names. They encourage vicarious audience participation on Facebook, Twitter, online polls and other social media. But this is no value-neutral production. This is an archetypal trope that requires a guilty verdict; as one insightful media critic noted, acquittals do not produce the desired catharsis.

Public shaming run amok

In such an emotionally charged climate, anyone affiliated with the defense automatically becomes a villain. However, it is interesting to observe the disparate treatment of LaViolette as compared with a male expert witness, psychologist Richard Samuels. The prosecutor aggressively attacked them both. Playing not only to the jurors but to his sizeable out-of-court fan base, Martinez paced back and forth like a tiger smelling blood, demanding of his cornered prey that they give only "yes or no" answers to his myriad questions. Under his withering cross-examination, both witnesses came across as defensive and evasive. Both were vulnerable due to their confirmatory biases -- a failure to seek out evidence that might disconfirm their case theories. But, objectively, Samuels would seem to invite at least as much criticism as LaViolette, due to his bumbling style, his test scoring errors, and his questionable case formulation (he diagnosed posttraumatic stress disorder using a rating scale on which Arias endorsed a fictitious trauma, of witnessing Alexander's murder at the hands of imaginary intruders).

However, the public's palpable fury against LaViolette far outstrips that targeting Samuels. Consistent with the Turner Network's gendered narrative of criminal villainy, the cyber-posse is fueled by a potent combination of misogyny and homophobia: The expert witness in their crosshairs is "emasculating," "a bull dyke," "a man-hater," "fat," "buck-teethed," "a bitch."

The Internet fosters this culture of hate. Its cloak of anonymity is disinhibitory, emboldening people to spew bile with impunity. In The Cult of the Amateur, Andrew Keen warns that the deluge of anonymous online content is altering public debate, manipulating opinion, blurring the boundaries between experts and the uninformed and weakening the vitality of professional media -- newspapers, magazines, music and movies.

The proliferation of bottom-feeders on Twitter and YouTube is one thing. But it is quite another thing when cyber-bullying seeps into the courtroom, intimidating witnesses and threatening the presumption of innocence.

Can inundated jurors remain unbiased?

Legal experts worry that a virtual deluge of unreliable and biased information -- readily available at the click of the mouse or a TV remote -- is undermining jurors' neutrality. In their off hours, curious jurors in the Arias case can tune in not only to the cable TV and social media debacle, but can watch the defendant's entire videotaped police interrogation -- including excised portions -- as well as a police interview with Arias's parents, in which they speak of her mental problems. Pro- and anti-Arias websites have sprung up. And it's not just outsiders who are furiously Tweeting, texting and blogging about the case.  Witnesses are watching the trial from home and texting the prosecutor with suggestions for cross-examination. Jodi Arias herself is tweeting from the jail, through a friend. ("HLN is an acronym for Haters Love Negativity," she tweeted.)

It would be naive to suppose that the Arias jury is immune to the inflammatory rhetoric swirling around the Internet. Some of the more sarcastic questions that jurors submitted for the expert witnesses sounded scripted by Nancy Grace. For example, one juror asked psychologist Samuels whether a bad haircut could induce posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Samuels's diagnosis for Arias.

Yet trial judge Sherry Stevens -- who allowed cameras into the courtroom in the first place -- is now relying on the honor system rather than regaining control by sequestering the jury.  Complained defense attorney Kirk Nurmi: "The court asks the question of the jurors every morning, 'Have you seen anything on the media?' No one raises their hand... It is a fairy tale to assume that this jury is not hearing any of this. It is all over the news."

Kiefer, the Arizona Republic reporter who broke the story of witness LaViolette's cyber-bullying, gave examples of juror social-networking misconduct in other cases: A Michigan juror who posted a Facebook preview of her verdict ("Gonna be fun to tell the defendant they're GUILTY"); a juror in Britain who polled her social-media "friends" as to whether she should find a defendant guilty.

With more and more successful appeals of verdicts due to such Internet or social-media interference, according to a Reuters Legal survey, an appeal of any guilty verdict in the four-month Arias trial is a virtual certainty.

But any appeal will not mend the reputations of the expert witnesses called by the defense. As a retired Maricopa County Superior Court judge told Michael Kiefer, the Arizona Republic reporter, "it's the electronic version of a lynch mob."

Sree Sreenivasan, a journalism professor at Columbia University, told Kiefer he had never seen anything like the attack on LaViolette, but that it likely will become "standard operating procedure in prominent cases" -- witness intimidation taken to its logical extreme in a public culture of shaming and vilification.

If so, experts may think long and hard before about accepting referrals in high-profile cases. That, in turn, could have a chilling effect on defendants' rights to a fair trial.

Michael Kiefer's insightful Arizona Republic reports on the social media debacle are HERE, HERE and HERE. A full collection of the live-streamed trial videos is located HERE.

1 comment:

KMJ said...

Here's my comment: "Get used to it". Our First Ammendment right protects not only "expert" witnesses - who are getting paid $300 an hour to testify, $250 an hour for evaluation and research, that "electronic lynch mob"- who's getting paid nothing and your "electronic opinion" whether you or anyone else likes what's being said or not. If you are going to get on tv, which Samuels and LaViolette knew beforehand, and make controversial and/or inaccurate statements backed by biased assumptions, sloppy research and "old-fashioned" values, then you better be prepared for the public outcry. Who's paying these two? The Arizona taxpayers. Who's this "digital lynch mob"? United States taxpayers. So, be quiet and sit down, or better yet, just be quiet. I don't like what you're saying. (See what I just did there?)