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Big Name Criminal Defendants Are Popping Up on Facebook and Twitter

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By Rachel Leven
ticklethewire.com

On June 4, indicted ex- New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik did two very public things. He went to court and he tweeted.

“In DC Federal Court today. Indicted for a third time on the same charge. Unprecedented, selective, and overreaching prosecution? You tell me,” the frustrated Kerik tweeted on Twitter.

While Kerik declined comment, his supporters remarks on “Support A True Hero,” a pro-Kerik group on Facebook, show that he was not alone in thinking the prosecution went too far.

“You deserve an apology for any alligations {sic} made towards you,” wrote one member. ” You will always be a hero.”

Back in the day, criminal defendants and their supporters relied solely on the mainstream media to publicly vent and put their spin on a case.

No more. With the advent of social networks like Facebook and Twitter, defendants — but far more often supporters — are spouting off whenever they want, and in some instances, whatever they want, hoping in some way to sway public opinion or provide moral support for the indicted person.

And the mainstream media is listening. Shortly after Kerik posted his concise, but obviously frustrated three-line tweet on June 4, the Associated Press picked up on it.

Facebook groups supporting or criticizing  criminal defendants such as Kerik, baseball star Barry Bonds, ex-Congressman William Jefferson, and convicted felons such as Jack Abramoff and Bernie Madoff, have been spreading like a California forest fire in the dead of summer, often connecting anywhere from about 20 to 6,000 fans.

And in most instances,  you’d be hard pressed not to find at least one  favorable fan page for any high profile criminal defendant on Facebook, a social network which was once the exclusive domain of the young. Now it’s attracting folks of all ages as it becomes increasingly more mainstream, much to the chagrin of some younger folks, particularly those who find their parents asking to “friend them”.

“I feel that Facebook and Twitter are both places where you can express your opinions freely regarding celebrities,” said Clemson University student Alexis Tuten, creator of a Barry Bonds Facebook group. “Facebook was also my first choice as an outlet because a lot of kids my age are on it, and they can express themselves as well.”

People like Jeff Smith seem to be passionate about defending a public figure, which in his  case, is Bernie Kerik,  who faces multiple federal charges including conspiracy and tax fraud, and was once  considered to head the Dept. of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush but withdrew after admitting that he hired an illegal immigrant as a nanny.

“I was at his fundraiser and if everyone could have heard the great stories that people were telling about how much of an impact Bernie has made on [their] lives, you would see why he is a ‘True American Hero’,” Smith said in a posting on a pro-Kerik Facebook group.

When it comes to high-profile criminal defendants, it’s pretty typical to have  multiple pro and con Facebook groups. One example  is Ex-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who faces trial on host of charges including allegations that he tried to sell Barak Obama’s vacant Senate seat.

On the “Free Rod Blagojevich” Facebook page, which has 395 members, Geoff Wright of Chicago wrote last month: “Hey I know someone thats more crooked and has done worse than Rod, And he’s now the President.Rod is innocent and am looking forward to his talk show on WLS 890 am…think about it…The Rod and Roe show….battle of the egos. I digress….Rod is wrongly accused….and should not spend one minute in jail.”

In contrast, on the Impeach Rod Blagojevich page, which has become less active since his Impeachment, Kevin Wood of Chicago wrote last Dec. 12: “what a disgrace blagoyabitch is and I hope he def. goes to jail.”

Regardless of how many Facebook or Twitter fans a defendants has, it’s not likely to positively impact the outcome of their case, says Steven Levin, a former Maryland federal prosecutor who is now with the firm Levin & Gallagher Law Firm.

“I don’t know any defendant… who has won because he has a following outside of the court room,” Levin said.

But he says, these social networks can hurt defendants in court if they go too far. The government, he said, has full access to those statements and can use them against the defendant.

Lawrence Kobilinsky, professor and chairman of Criminology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, echoes similar sentiments, and warns that defendants should be careful about publishing private or sensitive information.

“It’s better to leave it to the attorneys to do the talking,” he said.

Regardless of those concerns, some supporters consider the technology useful to promote opinions not widely publicized by the media.

“I do not have the money to pay [the media] to run my opinion as advertising [so] I… must either… watch them sling mud on a good man or go to a forum where I can say and publish what I want without others making me pay for it,” said Tsvi Mark, a member of a Facebook group supporting convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Interestingly, even a vilified figure like Bernie Madoff has some supporters on Facebook.  On the  Facebook group “Bernie Madoff is my Hero!”,  George Shao wrote: “Bernie Madoff is such a hero of these phony times. And why the hell are Ponzi Schemes illegal? Such Hypocracy! The entire economy is a Ponzi Scheme, just lots of ppl don’t want to tell the truth about it. Here’s a man who had the guts to give the ppl what they really wanted.”

Still, there are some instances in which there’s a lot of Facebook pages dedicated to a particular criminal defendant, but none positive.

Enter the divisive figure Monica Conyers, the wife of Rep. John Conyers, who recently pleaded guilty in federal court in Detroit to taking bribes while sitting on the Detroit City council.

Some of the Facebook groups dedicated to her include: Save Detroit from Monica Conyers! (5,934 members); Monica Conyers has got to go!!! (431 members); Monica Conyers: A Disgrace to Detroit (47 members).

In “Save Detroit from Monica Conyers,” Brian Poelman wrote, ” I’m so sick of corrupt politicians. Monica epitomizes everything wrong with the politician mentality that has become so common across BOTH parties.”

On the page “Monica Conyers: A Disgrace to Detroit”, Cyn Angel of Detroit wrote in March, before the city council woman was charged and pleaded guilty: “She is a disgrace to the human population!”


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Time July 24, 2009 at 10:19 am

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