In a case that highlights the increasing relevance of social media to the practice of law, Ohio's 6th District Court of Appeals ruled this month that the use of a Facebook profile picture to identify the perpetrator of a crime was permissible under the Ohio Rules of Evidence. The case involved Traquawn Gibson, who was convicted of the 2012 murders of his former girlfriend, Crejonnia Bell, and a man he had attempted to rob at gunpoint, as well as other, related crimes. The victim in the second case, Deonta Allen, had been smoking marijuana with a friend, Lemmie Reynolds, in a car when Gibson and two others attempted to rob them. Although Reynolds was shot, he survived and identified the other two men as Stephaun Gaston and Kevin Martin, but did not know who Gibson was. Gibson was later arrested for shooting and killing his ex-girlfriend on a different occasion.
The detectives in the case found Facebook profiles of Gaston and Martin. Reynolds located a Facebook profile for Gibson on his own and identified him by his lips. He also later identified a photo of Gibson offered by police, also by matching his lips. The prosecutor offered printouts from all three Facebook profiles as evidence at trial, which Detective William Noon, gang specialist on the Toledo Police Gang Task Force, used to identify the men as members of local gangs.
Gibson appealed the admission of this evidence, arguing that it was prejudicial and lacked a proper foundation. In determining whether this evidence was admissible, the court analyzed rulings from other courts regarding admitting similar social media evidence, noting that some set a high threshold for authenticating evidence, while others leave it to the discretion of the jury unless it is clearly inauthentic. The court acknowledged issues unique to authenticating this type of evidence, as social media profiles can be falsified, but ultimately agreed with courts that used this lower threshold.
The court, quoting a case out of federal district court in Maryland, held that, "a trial court 'need not find that the evidence is necessarily what the proponent claims, but only that there was sufficient evidence that the jury might ultimately do so.'” The burden then shifts to the opposing party to show that it is not authentic. In this case the court found the evidence in this case met that standard and admitting the Facebook profiles did not constitute an abuse of discretion. In reaching this conclusion, the court considered, "the unique street names, gang terminology, photos, artwork, and gang signs utilized on the subject public Facebook profile pages in conjunction with both direct and circumstantial evidence of the proposed owners’ gang affiliation."
For more information about this case, see this article from Court News Ohio.