Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Witness comments on Facebook cause assault case to be dismissed

This may be the first time in Ireland that a case has been dismissed on the basis of Facebook comments. From the Mayo News:
A WOMAN who wrote comments on a Facebook page about an alleged assault was told her actions had ‘fatally compromised’ the assault case which was subsequently dismissed.

Judge Mary Devins told last week’s sitting of Ballina District Court that in her view writing messages on Facebook was akin to writing in newspapers.

She made her ruling after hearing evidence from Maureen O’Malley from Westport, who explained that she posted two messages on Facebook about an alleged assault by the CEO of a Ballina laboratory against an animal rights protester.

Leonard Moran of Carrentrila, Ballina, was accused of assaulting Laura Broxon from Dublin. He was accused of punching her in the face while wielding a hammer when she was staging a protest outside the Ovagen and Charles River Laboratories, which are adjacent to Mr Moran’s house.

Mr Moran, who is a Director of Ovagen and who used to own the lab until it was sold to US company, Charles River in 2002, denied he punched her. Ms Broxon, who is the founder of the National Animal Rights Association, claimed that testing of animals takes place in the lab and during the protest accused Mr Moran of having ‘blood on your hands’...

Detective Garda Pat Ruane explained that two comments had been posted by Maureen O’Malley, who admitted posting them.

She told the court last week that she arrived at the scene after the incident had taken place and had spoken to Ms Broxon, who explained what she claimed happened. She said was shocked at what happened and posted the comments when she went home.

In the first comment, she posted that the CEO of Charles River had assaulted a protester, and in the second comment she asked why he would resort to physical violence and what he was capable of doing to ‘defenceless animals in his lab’.

Judge Devins said that even though she wrote the comments with good intentions, writing about something on Facebook can compromise a criminal prosecution. She said it was akin to a local or national newspaper giving their version of events and dismissed the case.
Based on this report, it's difficult to see precisely why the charge was dismissed. There was no jury and therefore no real risk of the comments improperly influencing the decision maker. The mere fact that a witness has previously written about what they saw - even publicly - is not in itself a basis for dismissal of charges. In addition, there was no suggestion that the comments could influence other witnesses in the case. Most importantly, the equation of Facebook comments with newspaper coverage is simply incorrect and seems to reflect a misguided analogy with the law regarding contempt of court and the sub judice rule. While social media does present genuine challenges for the law, it would be unfortunate if judicial unfamiliarity with the internet were to lead to unnecessary problems for the criminal justice system.

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