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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Facebook and Vigilante Justice

By: Timothy P. Flynn

On Sunday Morning, I was reading the Detroit Free Press about a rough incident of vigilante justice made possible by Facebook.  As the social media experience accelerates, we can expect more cases like this one.

The Crime.  A 15-year old girl with Down Syndrome was allegedly raped in the Hubbard Farms neighborhood on Detroit's Southwest side on July 17th.  Word got out that the suspect was a 45-year old man, also from Hubbard Farms.

The Consequences.  First, Emails circulated through the neighborhood about the attack and the suspect's involvement, divulging his name and address.  Next, graffiti below the suspect's apartment window pronounced the Hubbard Farms resident a "Rapist".  Once outed by the graffiti and emails, neighbors demanded to know what should be done about the attack, and the alleged attacker, like right now.

An Unfortunate Delay.  For their part, the Detroit Police bungled getting off the dime on the case.  The subsequent investigation into the girl's attack led to a rape kit that included a Buccal swab from the suspect.  The DNA samples, however, were not transmitted to the Michigan State Police crime lab by the DPD for over a week.

We here at the Law Blogger know, from our own cases, that the State Police crime lab is seriously backlogged, taking between 6-months up to one-year before test results are returned.

A Facebook "Call-to-Action".  So in the month since the rape occurred, neighbors who see the alleged attacker still walking the streets, have become incensed with the slow-moving wheels of justice.  They know that the suspect has not been charged with any crime; at least not yet.

This delay in justice was not acceptable to some of the neighborhood residents who recently struck-up a FB campaign calling for street justice; one post even suggested a back-alley castration; others posted equally specific threats.

The Beatdown.  Apparently, due to the e-notoriety of the alleged attacker, he himself was attacked on the street by several members of the neighborhood, beaten with a baseball bat and kicked in the ribs and face according to witnesses.  He survived the beatdown and his family moved him to an unknown location for his own safety.  [Note: Although witnesses to the beatdown contacted the DPD, the police arrived too late, apparently otherwise engaged with a fatal shooting nearby.]

Guardianship Proceedings.  According to the Freep article, the suspect has a mental illness, was committed to a mental health facility last year, and has a Guardianship in the Wayne County Probate Court.

Managing over 75 guardianships in my own law practice as a Public Administrator, I understand the challenges and heartbreak of mental illness.  Mental illness, however, is not a legal defense to most crimes.  When our wards get charged and convicted of crimes, their mental illness is taken into account at the sentencing hearing, but it does not exonerate the criminal act.

Vigilante Justice.  Vigilante justice is not the answer, even when the wheels of justice turn slowly.  While justice delayed is truly justice denied, vigilantism points to a critical breakdown in our society, letting us know just how close chaos looms beneath the surface.

As a criminal defense lawyer, I understand the necessity of the prosecutor to collect evidence to prove the charges in a court of law.  Nearly always easier said than done, especially in Detroit.

In this case, the Wayne County Prosecutor will bring criminal charges against the alleged attacker just as soon as they have sufficient evidence to prevail in court; that's how the justice system works.

We here at the Law Blogger find it ironic that technological advances such as the proliferation of social media serve, at least in cases like this, to accelerate violence in a frenzied rush to judgment.

What if the mob gets it wrong; where is the appeal filed from that injustice?

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