COA calls for guidance on social media use during criminal trials

August 24, 2016

In affirming that a man was not deprived due process when the media live tweeted during his murder trial, the Indiana Court of Appeals noted that it’s time for the judicial branch to address social media use concerns.

Christopher Compton was arrested and charged with arson and felony murder in the deaths of his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Keri Jones, one of her 3-year-old daughters, and another occupant of Jones’ apartment building. The three were unable to escape a fire that started in the floor below and died from smoke inhalation and/or carbon monoxide poisoning.

Just before the fire, Compton was at the apartment, arguing with Jones and telling her that she and Jones’ two daughters had to leave with him right now or he was going to “burn this mother f---er to the ground.” Jones’ uncle ordered Compton to leave.

A neighbor saw Compton walking away and said there was smoke coming from the apartment. Compton replied, “I know, I started it.” Police questioned Compton and he also explained how he flicked a Black and Mild cigar onto a baby stroller, igniting the fire.

Compton filed a motion to suppress the incriminating statements, alleging the state failed to establish the corpus delicti of arson. A fire investigator testified that the fire wasn’t due to nature or accident causes and couldn’t rule out that it was possibly set intentionally, but the cause of the fire was undetermined.

He was convicted of three felony murder charges on the basis of guilty but mentally ill. The arson charges were dismissed by the state. The Court of Appeals affirmed, finding the trial court did not err in admitting evidence of his inculpatory statements. They provide an inference that arson was committed, so the corpus delicti for arson was sufficiently established.

The appellate court also had to decide whether Compton was denied due process when the trial court allowed the media to live tweet the trial because it amounted to inherently prejudicial “broadcasting.” The judges declined to say whether tweeting is broadcasting because broadcasting of a defendant’s trial is not inherently prejudicial and Compton has not shown he suffered prejudice as a result of alleged broadcasting.

In a lengthy footnote, Judge Margret Robb expressed the court’s concern as to the impact social media applications have on due process and trials. She noted use of Twitter by jurors, and the possibility witnesses may see information tweeted by another witness, despite a court order for separation of witnesses.

“Despite these concerns, we decline to opine whether the use of Twitter should be permitted in the courtroom. We note, however, the pretrial instructions in this case did not instruct the jury not to refrain from seeking information through social media applications. Rather, the instructions merely instructed the jurors not to receive information from the internet. Given how easily one may access the internet in this technological age, we fear such an instruction may not be specific enough to deter jurors from using Twitter now and in the future.

“In addition, we note when the ethics rules regarding ‘broadcasting’ were written, social media was a vastly different medium than today. We believe judges and attorneys are in need of guidance on how they approach the use of social media during criminal trials. Therefore, given the rapidly evolving relationship between Twitter and our judicial system, we believe it is time for all appropriate judicial, attorney, and ethics committees to come together to specifically address these concerns.”

The case is Christopher Compton v. State of Indiana, 82A01-1511-CR-1997.


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