A Tennessee defense attorney is arguing for a change of venue in a racially charged double murder by citing postings on Internet blogs along with newspaper and television reporting -- a move that legal observers say may become more common.
Attorney Philip Lomonaco of Knoxville, Tenn., called the Internet "the largest unregulated source for information" in the community, and said it had been used to "outrage and taint any jury pool" that could be seated to hear the case against Eric Dewayne Boyd.
Boyd, 34, faces federal charges of hiding the alleged ringleader of four suspects in a carjacking that resulted in the abduction, rape, torture and murder of a young couple on a date. The victims were both white, while all the suspects are black.
The case is U.S. v Boyd.
Internet postings insisted the victims were each sexually mutilated, a false allegation that authorities did not refute for five months, Lomonaco alleged in his motion.
"There are people out there who want to perpetuate and spread that information for their own agenda," Lomonaco said. "It is not just something you see one time and it goes away. The white supremacist rallies were pretty caustic and that is all on YouTube," he added. "The speakers were screaming these kids were mutilated and chopped up and claiming they got the information from their members on the [Knoxville Police Department]."
Although it is impossible to move to a location beyond the reach of the Internet, Lomonaco said the case should be moved to western Tennessee, beyond the coverage area of the Knoxville print and television media.
The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Tennessee declined to comment on the venue change motion other than to say a reply would be filed with the district court this week.
In his brief, Lomonaco wrote that blogs "spread lies and helped create an urban legend surrounding the details of the final state of the victims' bodies -- details meant to outrage and taint any jury pool. These untruths made a heinous crime even more horrific, and has created an irreversible fog of prejudicial publicity."
George Washington University Law School professor Stephen Saltzburg, who chairs the American Bar Association's Criminal Justice Section, said the Boyd case was the first time he has heard of blogs being cited in a change-of-venue motion. He said he doubted that Internet postings added much volume to the pervasive television and newspaper coverage surrounding sensational criminal cases.
"Blogs are just another form of communication," Saltzburg wrote in an e-mail. "Courts have examined prospective jurors as to what they have read or heard about a case. Now the inquiry will be not only about newspapers, magazines, TV and radio, but it will be about Internet communications and e-mails. The basic inquiry is the same, but it is doubtful that most jurors will 'blog' whereas most jurors will watch TV, listen to radio and sometimes read the newspaper."
Lomonaco considers blogs to be part of a media "feeding frenzy" in which "accuracy and facts took a back seat to racist views, hate mongering and mob mentality." Mainstream media accounts at times included, but later dropped, rumors and false allegations of sexual mutilation that continue to circulate on the Internet, Lomonaco wrote.
Little Rock, Ark., defense attorney John Wesley Hall, president-elect of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said blogs are more likely to pose novel free-speech questions than voir dire challenges.
"Blogs don't have the circulation of newspapers, but they can pick up rumors and pass them on. Is a blogger covered by any kind of shield law?
"Some states might say a blogger is the equivalent of the leafletter of the 18th century and it is protected speech. It is a very difficult First Amendment question that will have to be resolved some day," Hall said.