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December 4, 2012

Should high-profile prosecutor have a high-profile social media presence?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this St. Louis Post-Dispatch article. The piece is headlined "Tweeting the law: St. Louis prosecutor gets praise and criticism," and here are excerpts:

She delivered her first tweet with gusto. “I know I’m getting to this party 5 years late but Hello Twitterverse!” Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce announced in a March 23, 2011, post, adding a #JMJ stamp to make it official.  From there, the St. Louis prosecutor — who until then preferred sticking to the confines of the courthouse — developed a loud and unabashed presence on the social networking site.

With daily, sometimes rapid-fire online messages, Joyce began announcing charges and sentences.  She expanded to Facebook, telling the stories of crime victims and neighborhood action.  She eschewed traditional news releases in favor of teasers linked to court documents on her website.  She rallied citizens and threatened criminals.

“Bad guys take heed: Lafayette Park folks WILL catch you & they WILL go to court to get your bond raised. Saw this today!” she tweeted in June 2011.  And in January: “Carl Barnes & David Townes came to City to steal dumpsters. Both now charged with felony stealing. Stay out of our town! #WELOVESTL.” 

At last check, Joyce had tweeted 2,557 times to 1,628 followers, and 917 people had subscribed to her office’s Facebook page.... [E]ven in the age of online everything, it is less common to see a prosecutor so prolific on these sites, and mixing personal with professional.

While Joyce has been praised for engaging the community, her musings — particularly the tone of them — have raised eyebrows in the buttoned-down legal community, where lawyers’ comments are bound by strict limits to protect the rights of the accused.  Twice this year, Joyce’s courtroom opponents have complained to judges in formal motions that she crossed the line....

On her Twitter page, Joyce juxtaposes case information with shout-outs to her husband and cheers and jeers on Notre Dame game days.  After reaching the 1,000-follower mark, she tweeted about a cupcake giveaway.  She praises police and neighborhood groups who show up to court. “It is very powerful in informing and engaging citizens to get involved in public safety issues in their community,” she explained.

Her message to criminals is pointed: Shape up or ship out.  “Stanley Bailey assaulted an 80 yr old lady & stole her purse,” she tweeted on Oct. 25.  “He now has 20 yrs to ask himself why he’s a jerk.”  In another: “Don’t threaten police with a weapon, unless you want to be shot AND charged with a felony (unlawful use of a weapon), like Carl Evans was today.”

The Facebook page, a collaboration of Joyce and her staff, has narratives of closed cases, crime-fighting tips and profiles of police and court players.  Those narratives are often dramatic, with talk of “bad guys” and the innocent victims they prey upon.  In one poignant exchange, she explained to the family of a traffic fatality why she could not file a manslaughter charge....

Joyce is not the only top prosecutor who tweets or finds friends on Facebook.  Charles Hynes, district attorney from Brooklyn, N.Y., and Craig Watkins, his Dallas counterpoint, are among many with a more neutral tone, offering posts that function as mini news releases about events and appearances.  They rarely talk about specific cases.

One exception is Ray Larson, district attorney in Lexington, Ky. Joyce has said on her Twitter page: “If you like tweeting prosecutors, you’ll love @raytheda. Much spicier than me!”  Larson displays a Superman-like emblem and likes to comment about “thugs, hoodlums and outlaws.”

Michael Downey, a lawyer specializing in ethics at the Armstrong Teasdale firm in St. Louis, said everyone should beware of the basic hazards of social media: It’s easy to be impulsive, the message reaches a broad audience and the words linger to haunt the writer later.  Beyond that, Downey emphasized, lawyers — especially prosecutors — have a special obligation not to publish something that might influence a jury and deprive a defendant of a fair verdict. “It’s a huge potential problem,” he said, and one that pops up increasingly. Ethics violations could lead to reprimand, suspension, or in more serious cases, disbarment....

Mary Fox, head of the public defender’s office here, complained in a court motion after prosecutors opposed a gag order in the Ronald Little rape case.  Fox said Joyce’s tweeting, in general, had created “a heightened public condemnation of the accused.” That wording reflects a Missouri ethics rule on pretrial publicity.  Fox wanted to prevent any tweets about Little’s case.  The motion never received a ruling.

In June, an assistant public defender asked a judge to dismiss rape charges against his client, David Polk, after Joyce tweeted about it on the eve of trial.  Joyce continued to tweet through jury deliberations, noting that she could never defend a child rapist.  The judge denied the motion, but did question jurors extensively about whether they had seen the tweets, according to Fox....

Joyce said she is careful not to include her opinions on active cases, speaking only to what is in the public record.  The ethics rule is posted on her website, and her Facebook page reminds that defendants are innocent until proven guilty.  She noted no ethics complaints have been filed against her.  “I’m an elected official and I’m put in this position by the people of St. Louis, and I think they have an expectation that I’m going to inform them of what’s going on,” Joyce said. “To suggest I don’t have the right to speak to my bosses — the citizens of the city of St. Louis — is kind of crazy.”

December 4, 2012 at 09:26 AM | Permalink

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Comments

I think having the profiles are fine but they shouldn't be talking about any of the cases.

Posted by: Marc | Dec 4, 2012 3:04:56 PM

another twitter/facesmuck idiot that knows no boundary which will probably come back to haunt her in the future

Posted by: henry | Dec 4, 2012 7:44:36 PM

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