Could Facebook messages be admissible in court – a Gettysburg rape case may answer that question

June 30 – Eight years ago a young woman attending Gettysburg College was allegedly raped in her dorm room.

She didn’t keep quiet about it.

She told her friends.

She went to the hospital. A rape test kit was done and has since apparently been lost.

She went to the police. She contacted the then-District Attorney in Adams County.

The DA decided that because alcohol was involved, it would be difficult to prosecute the case.

So it was dropped.

She did everything she was supposed to do, but justice was not on her side.

But now, it could be.

Last year, this same woman received a message on her Facebook page from her alleged attacker. He begins with “so I raped you” and continues on to apologize for the effect this had on her life.

She took the message to a reporter with the Associated Press and it reopened the case to the point where the now District Attorney in Adams County has filed an arrest warrant against this alleged rapist.

He is apparently in California. He has yet to be located, but they’re looking and it’s relatively likely he’ll be found.

The case presents a lot of difficult legal issues.

Attorney Clint Barkdoll, Pat Ryan and Michele Jansen discussed the case this morning during the Big Talk on First News.

Barkdoll said, “Assuming he does get arrested, you can bet there’s going to be a challenge that what he posted on Facebook, can you prove it was really him that posted it and is it admissible in court? Can what he posted on Facebook, the private communication to this woman, be admissible and used against him to prosecute him?”

Ryan predicted, “It’s already a loss here. He typed in ‘so I raped you’ and I say it’s already dead on arrival. How do you prove that he was the one that actually typed that up? That someone didn’t hack his account?”

Barkdoll said, “If he did it from a cell phone or a mobile device there’s certainly ways they could tie the device to him, but again what if his defense is it still wasn’t me? Although the communication is detailed enough that I think a prosecutor may say there’s no way someone else would have known this level of detail other than this guy.”

If it’s determined that he did write the message, the question then becomes is it admissible?

A judge will have to sort out whether this even gets to a trial.

Jansen said, “We have this going two ways on college campuses. We have young men that I think are being falsely accused or over accused of things when things are happening with drinking. I’m not saying drinking excuses things, but people have to take responsibility. If you’re drinking yourself, you’re putting yourself into a position where you might make choices that later on you’ll say weren’t choices. At the same time this seems like a case, they’re saying he followed her back. He snuck into her room. It feels like there was a lot of evidence in the beginning that wasn’t really looked at very carefully in this particular case. Just looking at what’s being said about it with no knowledge myself as to how true all that is.”

Barkdoll pointed out, “To this young woman’s credit, unlike other cases you hear about in this realm, there is a lot of corroborating evidence to support her claim, such as she immediately went to the hospital, immediately went to the police. There is a circle of witnesses that she immediately shared this with. Those are all indicia of credibility if this were to go into court. Assuming that the DA can still locate these witnesses and assuming they can still come into court and corroborate the fact that yes that night she immediately called and said this is what happened.”

This could stretch out for a long time, though. It could take a while to even find the alleged rapist and apprehend him. Then it could be years before the case even gets to a trial.  

Ryan said it “looks like she’s going to get some mental justice, though, out of this. Because this guy is going to be brought back into the spotlight and there’s going to be some processes going on here. While it may open up her existing wounds, she’s going to get some mental closure on this, don’t you think? There is something good about this coming out even if he gets the pass, his life is forever changed because of this, don’t you think?”

Barkdoll agreed, “I think there has to be a level of vindication for this woman. Going back to the original Associated Press story months ago when they dug into this, she and her family were very critical of the then-District Attorney in Adams County. I thought they made the valid point that even though the DA felt there was inadequate evidence to prosecute this guy, why not throw it to a jury and let a jury sort this out? She really felt and her family felt that this was not given fair treatment at the time by law enforcement and the fact that the new DA has filed this has to be in some ways a vindication for her that they are at least willing to reopen this and pursue it again.”