Prosecutor's Twitter Posts Won't Alter Rape Verdict
ST. LOUIS (CN) - Despite noting that they were "troubled" and "concerned" by Tweets that a prosecuting attorney made during a rape trial, Missouri appellate judges refused to disturb the conviction.
Nearly 20 years after the January 1992 attack of an 11-year-old girl, new DNA evidence spurred the indictment in St. Louis of David Polk.
Prosecutor Jennifer Joyce quickly began using her Twitter account to discuss the case.
Before jury selection, Joyce had said: "David Polk trial next week. DNA hit linked him to 1992 rape of 11 yr old girl. 20 yrs later, victim now same age as prosecutor."
During the trial, Joyce made the following tweets:
"Watching closing arguments in David Polk 'cold case' trial. He's charged with raping 11 yr old girl 20 years ago," and "I have respect for attys who defend child rapist. Our system of justice demands it, but I couldn't do it. No way, no how," and "Jury now has David Polk case. I hope the victim gets justice, even though 20 years late."
Jurors eventually convicted Polk of forcible rape and forcible sodomy, sentencing him to 15-year concurrent sentences.
Joyce applauded the verdict on Twitter.
"Finally, justice," she said in one post. "David Polk guilty of the 1992 rape of 11 yr old girl. DNA cold case. Brave victim now the same age as prosecutor."
Another post stated: "Aside from DNA, David Polk's victim could identify him 20 years later. Couldn't forget the face of the man who terrorized her."
Polk claimed that the Tweets violated rules of professional conduct for prosecutors, but a three-judge panel with the Eastern Division of the Missouri Court of Appeals disagreed Tuesday.
"Here, Polk has presented no evidence that the jury was aware of or influenced by Joyce's Twitter comments," Presiding Judge Lisa Van Amburg wrote for the court. "During voir dire, none of the potential jurors responded that he or she followed the prosecutor's social media postings. Additionally, the trial court instructed the jury not to conduct any independent research, and to refrain from using social media such as Twitter or Facebook. Though we do foresee how comments like Joyce's could taint a jury, we cannot conclude that the jury in this case was substantially swayed based on the mere potential for prejudice."
Even though the judges found that Joyce's tweets didn't affect the verdict, they expressed concern over Joyce's actions.
"However, extraneous statements on Twitter or other forms of social media, particularly during the time frame of the trial, can taint the jury and result in reversal of the verdict," Van Amburg wrote. "We doubt that using social media to highlight the evidence against the accused and publicly dramatize the plight of the victim serves any legitimate law enforcement purpose or is necessary to inform the public of the nature and extent of the prosecutor's actions. Likewise, we are concerned that broadcasting that the accused is a 'child rapist' is likely to arouse heightened public condemnation. We are especially troubles by the timing of Joyce's Twitter posts, because broadcasting such statements immediately before and during trial greatly magnifies the risk that a jury will be tainted by undue extrajudicial influences."
The appeals court also threw out Polk's argument about the photo lineup that the state had introduced, finding that police followed procedure.
St. Louis released a statement from Joyce on the appellate ruling in which she emphasized that she and her office will continue using Twitter to communicate to the public.
"The Appellate Court recognized that the basic facts underlying the tweets are part of the public record," Joyce said in the statement. "The information was contained in the felony complaint and the probable cause statement. It is also important to note that one of the Tweets highlighted by the court was made that week before trial. As a prosecutor, I am entitled to advise the public of upcoming trials. Further, the additional tweets were intentionally posted only after the jury had been instructed to refrain from consulting any external news sources including social media."
Joyce called Twitter and Facebook "valuable and legitimate ways for law enforcement officials to inform and engage the public."
"While I understand some members of the legal community are uncomfortable with social media, the advent of non-traditional media, such as Facebook, Twitter, and website, have allowed elected officials and government agencies to more directly and transparently communicate and engage with the public," she added.
Judges Patricia Cohen and Gary Gaertner Jr. concurred with the ruling.