Social Media And A Rape Case: Officials Differ On Effect Of Pre-Case Debate

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As the news of an alleged rape on Court Street goes international, officials have different views on the effect social media has on an investigation and a court case.

In addition to media reports of a man and a woman engaging in sexual conduct during Homecoming weekend — an incident that the woman is claiming is rape — videos, photos and comments about the incident widely circulated on Twitter, Instagram and other social media. When the woman — an Oho University student — filed a report Oct. 12 with Athens police claiming she had been raped, the news spread even further and opinions began to form between groups on campus and off.

No charges have been filed in the case and Athens Police Chief Tom Pyle said those involved have been cooperating with the investigation.

Athens County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn will be meeting with police officials to discuss the case on Monday, according to The Associated Press. He said he and the police will discuss the evidence and that the case could go to grand jury as soon as Oct. 28.

Specific details about the case are limited as the police investigation continues, and they are limited for a reason, Pyle said.

“Allow us to do our jobs and allow privacy to those involved,” Pyle said. “Commenting more than we have to is something we will not do because we have no desire to prejudice any prosecution.”

But stories about the incident continue to be released, including local media, the online source Buzzfeed and United Kingdom publication The Daily Mail. With the frequent reports comes frequent misinformation, according to Pyle and other officials.

Most recently, Pyle said he was misquoted in an article by The Post, which said authorities had confirmed that the woman who claimed to have been raped had gone home with her alleged rapist.

“It is a misquote due to context,” Pyle said. “The Post asked me if we were aware of reports to that extent and I confirmed we were aware of those reports. I did not confirm that those reports were factual.”

The sort of media attention this case has been getting can be a negative when it comes to prosecuting a case in a local court, according to Athens County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn. Social media was meant to be a tool to connect with friends and activities, Blackburn said, not for police work.

“It is not designed as a law enforcement tool or a way to collect information,” Blackburn said. “It isn’t just social media either, news media have gone so far as to post and show a picture … and claim it is the same woman when it is not.”

Blackburn was referring to a photo, used in a story by The Daily Mail and distributed by other news sources, of what appears to be a woman lying on a sidewalk just off Court Street.

“It is that kind of ‘gotcha journalism’ that results in misinformation in cases and causes issues when investigators are trying to find the truth,” Blackburn said.

In judging a case, the tools to make a rape case cut and dry just aren’t there, according to Athens County Common Pleas Judge L. Alan Goldsberry. Throughout the years, Goldsberry has seen many sexual assault and rape cases, and the prosecution and defense strategies have shown little changes.

“I don’t know that we have any more tools than we ever did for this type of case,” Goldsberry said.

But in a county the size of Athens, it is possible a jury of impartial jurors could be brought together. It would take a candid conversation and lots of discussion of what the citizens know to be the facts, Blackburn said.

That conversation also happens with the defense attorneys, said Bob Toy, who said he defends a rape case once or twice every year. For such cases, it’s important to “educate” the jury on being impartial.

“If it’s so high publicity a case like this might be, you usually try to get a jury before you try to move (to another county for the trial),” Toy said, adding that it is usually very difficult to get a case venue changed.

Although he had no specific knowledge of the current rape investigation, Toy referred to the 1997 case of Ben Mallory, an OU student who was charged with rape and was later acquitted and received monetary compensation from the university in a related civil suit.

In the Mallory case, the two had been drinking and engaged in sexual conduct, which was witnessed by several dormitory residents, who did not try to stop the act, Toy said.

“If you’re a defense attorney, you want to find out what happened before and after (the alleged rape) happened,” Toy said. “There’s also the question of what is consent when they’ve both been drinking.”

But the case brought strong opinions on both sides of the issue, which happens often in controversial cases.

“There is a lynchmob mentality that comes along in a lot of cases and you just have to wait for the facts,” Toy said.

In finding a jury, Toy said, it’s important to question what they have seen about the case and what they believe to be true based on their personal values, attitudes and “pre-conceived notions” and not based on social media and media information.

“It’s easy to make a claim of rape, unfortunately it’s very hard to defend,” Toy said.

But social media hasn’t been universally written off by law enforcement. Sheriff Patrick Kelly claims having a presence on social media often brings new leads and more information.

Although negative comments can bog down a media site, the positive effects outweigh the negative, according to Kelly. He said the sheriff’s office uses sites like Facebook to get information from citizens’ posts.

“Social media is not going to affect a case,” Kelly said. “You get the facts and you conduct the investigation.”