For police and prosecutors, it’s never been easy to get witnesses to testify, especially in cases involving violent crime where retribution is a real concern.
Social media has made it even harder.
Three Bloomington-Normal residents were charged this spring with harassing witnesses using a private Facebook group called “People Against Snitches.” It’s an unusual case for McLean County but mirrors a national problem in the justice system—social media making it easier to find and intimidate witnesses.
“This is a big issue. It’s growing,” said Kristine Hamann, executive director of the New York-based Prosecutors’ Center for Excellence, which works with prosecutors to improve the criminal justice system. “You can do it from the privacy of your home in your pajamas. You don’t even have to bother to go out and shake somebody up.”
In the McLean County case, the defendants are Robin Casey, 46, of Normal and Margaret Stephens, 55, and Mark Huffington, 54, of Bloomington. They’re accused of posting names and photos of confidential police sources in the Facebook group. (A witness-harassment charge against a fourth defendant was dropped in May after the victim provided a "new, inconsistent statement that makes the case unable to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt at trial," prosecutors said.)
Stephens allegedly intended to harass or annoy a witness in a case where the defendant ended up pleading guilty, so the witness didn’t have to ultimately testify. Stephens “caused mental anguish or emotional distress” to the witness—identified in court documents only as J.S.—by what she posted on Facebook in December 2017, prosecutors said.
The Facebook group has since been removed. (A Facebook spokesperson did not respond to specific questions about this case, though the company said it "routinely responds to valid law enforcement requests for information, including those related to credible violence.") It’s unclear what case or cases the witnesses were connected with. The McLean County state’s attorney’s office and police declined to comment on the specifics of the witness-harassment cases.
After the charges were filed in March, Bloomington Police said it takes a “strong stance in the protection of our witnesses and victims of crime in our community.”
“Witness intimidation either in person or through electronic means is illegal and obstructs investigations,” BPD said in a statement. “BPD will remain vigilant in bringing those to justice who violate these laws. BPD will continue to collaborate with the McLean County state’s attorney’s office and the U.S. attorney’s office to ensure the maximum penalties in these cases.”
There have been similar episodes all over the country.
Online witness harassment reached “near epidemic” proportions in Philadelphia in recent years, according to the district attorney there. One witness in a criminal trial even received comments posted on his Xbox Live profile from the defendant warning "I wouldn’t laugh 2 much U a dead man walking" and "Rats die slow."
“This sort of reveals a dark side to social media use, to see it perverted for witness intimidation,” said John Browning, a trial lawyer in Texas who’s studied legal issues related to social media. His 2014 paper called “#Snitches Get Stiches” tracked cases of online witness harassment stretching from New Mexico to New York to Michigan.
Witness intimidation has been around as long as there have been courtrooms, he said.
“With the immediacy and the widespread dissemination offered by social media, it can take it to a whole new level,” said Browning.
Concerns about witness intimidation were one of the big reasons why the McLean County Law and Justice Center enacted its cell phone ban in 2017, said Sheriff Jon Sandage.
“We had instances of people filming testimony on their phone and then posting it online to intimidate people,” Sandage said. “We drew the line at that. Not only is it a security issue for witnesses, but it could also be a security issue for courthouse staff.”
McLean County State’s Attorney Jason Chambers declined to comment on the specifics of the “People Against Snitches” case. Lawyers for the defendants did not respond to requests for comment.
“Witness harassment is not something we file in often, but it is not an unheard-of charge or one we are unfamiliar with,” Chambers said. “We have filed in other cases in the last few years, however they likely did not receive much coverage. The facts necessary to prove the offense are narrow enough that it not a frequent occurrence and ultimately we can only go where the facts and evidence lead us.”
In the past, Chambers has talked about the difficulty in getting witnesses to cooperate, including after a 2017 gunfire-incident on Bloomington’s east side.
There’s funding and resources available for victims of sex crimes and domestic violence, said Hamann, a former career prosecutor in New York. But fewer resources exist for traditional witnesses, she said.
“These witnesses are sort of a forgotten constituency,” Hamann said.
Prosecutors are now counseling witnesses on basic social media safety, telling them they could be more vulnerable because of their testimony, she said.
“Ten years ago, it would’ve been harder to find someone or their children or their interests. You could look in the phone book, but you couldn’t get much farther than that. Now you can find out everything you need to know about somebody through Facebook,” Hamann said, whose nonprofit has written extensively on witness intimidation in the digital age.
Part of the problem, Browning said, is people may not fully realize the implications of their online behavior. Some states don’t have witness intimidation laws that have kept pace with technology, he said. And the First Amendment does protect unpopular speech, and “some of these things fall under a protected area,” he said.
“We see something like this, and people are rushing to take one side or another or weigh in on something, especially in high-profile or emotionally charged cases, and people don’t really realize the implications of their online speech,” Browning said.
Inside Private Groups
Private or secret Facebook groups are widespread and generally not anything nefarious. Families use private Facebook groups to stay in touch. GLT even has one for Election 2018.
But they have become a safe haven for seemingly illegal behavior too.
Brian Krebs, an investigative reporter and online security expert, has studied private Facebook groups devoted to illicit activities. His KrebsOnSecurity blog recently flagged more than 100 groups involved in a “broad spectrum of shady activities, including spamming, wire fraud, account takeovers, phony tax refunds, 419 scams, denial-of-service attack-for-hire services and botnet creation tools.”
“The people involved in all kinds of shady activity may not believe what they’re doing is wrong. At the end of the day, they may just feel that the likelihood that anybody is going to hold them accountable is very low, and I’d say that if they’re doing it on Facebook, that’s true,” Krebs told GLT. “That may explain why they’re there.”
Even today, a quick search of “snitches” on Facebook reveals many anti-snitch groups.
Facebook uses a combination of technology, reports from our community, and human review to remove any violating content, the company spokesperson said.
"We want people to feel safe when using Facebook," the spokesperson said. "For that reason, we've developed a set of Community Standards that lay out what is and is not allowed on the platform. In line with our Community Standards, we do not allow content that reveals and/or calls for harm against any vulnerable person or group, including confidential police informants."
But Krebs suggested Facebook's human reviews are typically conducted by poorly paid employees halfway around the world who often don’t speak English as their native language. They’re more equipped to find and flag inappropriate photos, he said.
“If it requires reading, good luck,” he said.
This new form of witness intimidation is another example of the law struggling to keep pace with technology, Browning said. It’s become increasingly important for prosecutors and defense attorneys to stay fluent on digital communication tools as more and more cases intersect with sites like Facebook, he said.
Defense attorneys have a new incentive to do so. Browning said more than 30 states have ratified a 2012 change from the American Bar Association, which added awareness of emerging technologies to the definition of competent representation.
“Nowadays, lawyers who ascribe to a dinosaur or luddite type of mentality when it comes to technology are in danger of being found not competent in representing their clients,” Browning said. “It’s now a basic part of being a competent lawyer.”
Charges against Casey, Stephens, and Huffington remain pending. They’re free on bond.
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