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Social Media Posts May Complicate Prosecution Of Sexual Assault


We put so much of ourselves out there on social media, from our proudest and happiest moments to our lowest. Recently, social media has been a space for stories about sexual harassment and sexual assault. But for women who file criminal charges, putting the experience in writing can actually complicate the search for justice. That's because defense attorneys can pick apart postings on Facebook and Twitter, hoping to undermine an accuser's credibility.

I spoke about this with Colby Bruno. She's the senior legal counsel for the Victim Rights Law Center. And she told me that she understands why women want to post their stories online.

COLBY BRUNO: A lot of victims find a lot of solace in reaching out to other victims, whether it's social media, you know, the Internet or whatever. The problem with that is that when you get into the criminal case, everything on social media is discoverable, which means that both parties - both the prosecutor and the defense attorney - will have access to anything that a survivor or a perpetrator posted.

So they go back into, you know, your social media feed. They see the pictures. They see the comments. They see, you know, if you have disclosed online. They can take your disclosure and compare it to the disclosure that you provided to the police in the official police report.

MARTIN: So if - they can point out any inconsistencies. And that might make the testimony vulnerable. So give us, if you could, some more examples when, in particular, defense attorneys are searching the social media postings. And what else are they looking for?

BRUNO: It's a very sad commentary, but they're mining the story about the victim - is that victim out partying all the time? - which victims are allowed to do, but in a criminal context, it will come back to haunt them.

MARTIN: This is about undermining them as a reliable narrator.

BRUNO: Exactly - as a reliable person. A defense attorney can mine for any kind of information - so pictures, comments - even if someone makes a flippant comment like - oh, God, looks like I'm going to need more therapy. That is a very private disclosure. And so the fact that I'm saying on a post again makes a defense attorney say - ah, this person is vulnerable to a particular attack. And oftentimes, it is that particular vulnerability that made the person a target in the first place.

MARTIN: Well, does it cut both ways? I mean, can prosecutors use social media in the same way to undermine or to paint a certain picture of the accused?

BRUNO: Of the accused - they can't. So they can use their social media. But because of the restrictions on evidence collection and the type of evidence presentation that a prosecutor has to do, it has to be entirely evidence-based, which is different than the defense lawyer.

So a defense lawyer can weave a story together. But the prosecutor is bound by more strict scrutiny almost. In our country, we value the possibility of a wrong conviction, right now, more than we value the victim's story.

MARTIN: But you would say, overall - even though there can be some emotional benefits to connecting with other people online, especially when it comes to a criminal case - the risks outweigh those benefits?

BRUNO: I think you can weigh where your priorities are. If you want to make the most successful criminal case, then that may mean turning off social media for a little while. But if you think that the criminal case isn't really going to go very far and your priority is to post and to heal through those posts and to heal through those connections, then anybody has the choice to do that. It's just really about understanding the risk.

MARTIN: Colby Bruno is the senior legal counsel for the Victim Rights Law Center.

Thanks so much for talking with us.

BRUNO: Thanks, Rachel.

MARTIN: We spoke with her on Skype. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.