Full Court Coverage
What happens when defense counsel and ordinary citizens blog about high-profile trials?
Posted Jan 1, 2008 3:04 PM CDT
By Stephanie Francis Ward
Some say Los Angeles prosecutor Alan Jackson has movie-star looks. Others compare him to a game-show host. But the most unusual characterization of the man who prosecuted music producer Phil Spector on murder charges likened him to a bulldog named Chance in the 1993 Disney movie Homeward Bound. “Of course, AJ is much smarter and more cautious than Chance, but overall personalities seem to fit,” wrote Betsy Ross in Trials & Tribulations, her blog that focused on the Spector prosecution.
A semiretired massage therapist who lives in the Los Angeles suburb of Sherman Oaks, Betsy Ross (yes, that’s her real name) regularly attended Spector’s trial in the 2003 killing of B-movie actress Lana Clarkson. She was one of at least three nonjournalists who blogged about the trial regularly, but the only one to merit a mention in Dominick Dunne’s column in Vanity Fair.
“I was trying to bring my readers into the courtroom with me,” says Ross, who blogs under the handle “Sprocket.” Her observations took a decidedly pro-prosecution lean. And Ross’ writing style often includes details and descriptions that would probably not be included in mainstream press coverage.
The case ended in a mistrial on Sept. 26, but Ross continues to write about Spector on her blog, and she plans to cover his retrial.
The Spector trial—which ended in a hung jury—is Ross’ second. Her first was the murder trial of actor Robert Blake, who in 2005 was acquitted of murdering his wife, Bonnie Lee Bakley. Also a fan of true crime message boards, Ross posted her observations about Blake’s trial on the boards. Later, after copying and pasting significant blocks of text, she started Trials & Tribulations; she now posts links to her blog on various message boards.
(Los Angeles district attorney’s office spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons said the office would not comment on Trials & Tribulations because of the pending retrial.)
Before it became apparent that there was a hung jury, Ross believed that Spector would be convicted. She was unimpressed with the defense and thought the jury felt the same.
In a July 22 post, Ross unloaded on Spector defense lawyer Linda Kenney Baden: “She’s screeching again, raising her voice. I agree with my seatmates. She’s very nice in person, but I can’t stand to listen to her either.
“Around 2:40 p.m., I see Spector’s hands shake for a bit, then stop,” she continued. “He’s in his usual position of slumped in his chair.”
‘NOT VERY NICE’
Roger J. Rosen, who led Spector’s trial team, says he never read Trials & Tribulations.
“Philip hired me to represent and defend him, not read blogs,” says the Los Angeles lawyer, who is not representing Spector in the retrial. He did allow that he had heard of the blog and characterized Ross’ writings as “not very nice.”
Many lawyers share that view about true crime blogs written by those trained in neither law nor journalism. Yet they exist, their numbers are growing, and they’re becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.
“People have to adjust to the fact that publicity is changing,” says Joseph B. Cheshire V, a Raleigh, N.C., lawyer. He represented one of the Duke University lacrosse players accused of rape in 2006. They were ultimately acquitted, which many credit to a blog that supported them.
Some attorneys are troubled by the blogs—which feature posts ranging from the objective to the opinionated to the demonstrably inaccurate—because they can’t control the message, even if only a few receive it. While Cheshire believes that blogs should be read with a grain of salt, “the way a lot of people run and hide from [blogs] is stupid, and to not consider using them would probably be naive as well.”
Joseph R. Lopez, a Chicago lawyer, agrees. He represents Frank Calabrese Sr., an accused Mob boss and hit man recently tried and convicted of seven murders, all tied to organized crime. While the trial—referred to as “Family Secrets” because Calabrese’s son, Frank Jr., cooperated with federal agents—was ongoing, Lopez blogged about it on a Mafia-focused webpage until the judge told him to stop.
“I thought the public had a right to know what I was thinking, and I wanted to express my opinions and views,” says Lopez, who posted his thoughts on a blog called the Chicago Syndicate. Lopez says that while he writes for the blog, it is not his personal page. (Indeed the page appears to be sponsored by someone who goes by the pseudonym “Joe Batterz,” an aspiring country music artist who claims to be a South Side Chicago native now living in Nashville, Tenn.; the domain name was registered privately.)
Much of the content on the site consists of reposts of newspaper and television coverage of the trial, but there are some original entries by both Batterz and Lopez, who used the nickname “The Shark.” (He sometimes wears a necklace with a shark pendant.)
In one of Lopez’s original trial posts, he comments about a government witness who owned a pornography shop, describing the man as a “chuch,” which is Italian slang for ass.
“He forgot to tell the jury how the outfit bankrolled his porno store and put in the video machines in the beat-off booths,” Lopez wrote. “This guy is something.”
In the same post, he spoke of federal prosecutor Mitchell A. Mars and the porn shop owner: “It was killing me. I was narcoleptic,” Lopez wrote. “I do not know who is more monotone and dry with no emotion.”
Yet the prosecution was apparently able to muster one reaction: According to Lopez, they complained about his writing to the court.
“They were hawking to see if I would post,” he claims. “They cared because I was making fun of them.”
‘SQUALID, UNCIVILIZED SAVAGES’
In another post, Batterz criticizes Lopez’s clients, comparing them to the fictional gangsters in The Funeral, a 1996 film starring Christopher Walken and Christopher Penn. The movie and the Family Secrets trial are similar, he writes, because “both portray gangsters as they should be seen—as squalid, uncivilized savages; not as handsome, slick-suited outlaws.” The post continues: “Such men (whether those in the courtroom or not, the jury have yet to decide) are just sadistic thugs who commit murder not for noble cause but for squalid greed, and that should never be forgotten.”
Once the Family Secrets trial ended and the gag order was lifted, Lopez resumed his posting at the Chicago Syndicate. “It’s a great way to tap public opinion,” he says of blogging. Even having the accused keep a blog could be a good thing, he adds. “They could blast the government if they wanted to.”
Randall Samborn, public information officer with the Northern District of Illinois’ U.S. attorney’s office, says his agency will not comment on Lopez’s writings. Lopez has another high-profile case coming up, in which he represents a Chicago police officer charged with participating in a home invasion ring. Unless a judge directs otherwise, Lopez plans to blog about that case, too.
Howard Varinsky, an Emeryville, Calif., trial consultant who often works with the government, believes more defense lawyers like Lopez will start blogging about their trials. As did Lopez, he also mentions the possibility of defendants sponsoring or supporting their own blogs.
Varinsky points to the 2005 Michael Jackson molestation trial. Varinsky worked with the Santa Barbara County district attorney on the case, and he says he suspects that the “King of Pop” was funding a blog that supported him. The blog directed fans to come out to the courthouse during trial, Varinsky says, and it posted photos and home addresses of the prosecution team.
Mark Simon, a Dana Point, Calif., private investigator who works with criminal defense lawyers, says that no clients have requested that he set up a blog on their behalf—yet.
“But if you have a high-profile case, why not?” Simon adds. “I wouldn’t put anything past anyone working for their client.”
‘NUTCASES WITH NO LIVES’
Varinsky also assisted the government with the Spector trial. He would not say whether Trials & Tribulations would be considered when putting together the retrial, but he acknowledges that most of the blogs are pro-prosecution. Still, he describes true crime bloggers, with no relation to the cases they write about, as “nutcases with no lives.”
Regardless, Varinsky believes that prosecutors generally don’t read blogs about the cases they’re prosecuting and doubts a prosecutor would ever blog about an ongoing case.
But it seems plenty of other people involved in the cases are paying attention—and, in the Spector case at least, using the blogs as a means to get heard despite gag orders.
It was Ross who first noticed—and posted—a message allegedly written by Spector’s wife, Rachelle, on “Team Spector,” a MySpace personal page that supports the “wall of sound” producer. The post appeared after Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Larry Fidler issued a gag order, forbidding Rachelle Spector from giving television interviews.
“I love Phil Spector———!!!” read the Sept. 23 post, which included a picture of Rachelle Spector, a 20-something aspiring singer who married the 69-year-old producer in 2006. “The Evil Judge Should DIE!!!!”
Ross mentioned the post on her blog, and mainstream media groups followed the story. Rachelle Spector denied any involvement, and the post was removed from the Team Spector page.
“I heard about that in the courtroom,” Rosen says when asked if his client’s wife wrote the post. “I don’t know anything about it.”
Someone claiming to be Rachelle Spector’s brother-in-law found Ross’ page through the CourtTV.com message board. The person made a post that agreed with Ross’ assessment that the Spector marriage was one of convenience and her view that Phil Spector was guilty. Later, someone claiming to be Rachelle Spector’s sister and the alleged brother-in-law’s spouse complained, and CourtTV.com took down the posts. Ross, who pasted the posts into her blog, refused.
Recaps of such drama rarely reach mainstream media, and some dismiss Ross’ writing as lowbrow. However, her stock rose when she scored a lengthy interview with one of the jurors after it was announced the jury could not reach a verdict.
Ross originally speculated on her blog, incorrectly it turned out, that a certain juror, “# 9,” voted not guilty. A friend of his was following Trials & Tribulations and sent him the post. The juror then contacted Ross and told her which two jurors actually voted not guilty. He also provided her with details about jury deliberations, which she posted.
Mainstream papers published the man’s recollections too, but with much less detail than Ross’ posts.
“One person’s take on a witness is one thing, but someone’s attempt to describe how a person described jury deliberations is something else,” says Anne Reed, a Milwaukee trial lawyer and jury consultant who practices with Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren. “That’s where [Ross] got extremely helpful.”
Reed also blogs, writing about jury consulting at Deliberations. Blogs about trials, Reed says, influence public opinion. The profession may not want to admit it, she adds, but the influence extends to the court and the prosecutor’s office.
“The media in general can affect the decisions of politicians and public servants more easily than it ought to,” Reed says, “and it can affect what happens inside a trial.”
She mentions the Duke University lacrosse players accused and acquitted of rape. K.C. Johnson, a history professor at Brooklyn College, took an interest when the arrests were made and started a blog, Durham-in-Wonderland. Unlike many blogs that focus on criminal cases, Johnson took a pro-defense position.
An advertisement placed by Duke faculty members, who Johnson says condemned the accused before trial, attracted him to the case.
“It struck me as so inappropriate in so many ways,” he says. He believed that newspapers weren’t doing a good job covering the story, that political correctness was affecting coverage, and that the defendants were not being treated fairly.
The blog also reviewed depositions, which Johnson says demonstrated that Mike Nifong, the former Durham County district attorney, filed the charges without enough evidence.
“The characterization of the lacrosse team was that these guys were all sorts of racist folks who spent all their time partying,” says Johnson, mentioning evidence that the defendants received good grades at Duke.
“You couldn’t be good students and behave the way they were portrayed. It was clear to me that the characterization could not be true,” says Johnson, who in September said that he was winding down the blog and planning a one-year stay at Tel Aviv University, where he was awarded a Fulbright grant.
Much of Johnson’s writing is lengthy and sometimes seems more like a college lecture with attitude than a blog entry. For the past two years, Johnson made detailed posts daily, and he often traveled from New York to North Carolina to cover hearings.
In September the blog had received more than 5 million hits, according to Johnson, who added that his page usually attracts between 200 and 300 readers a day. Some, including Johnson, say that his blog figured significantly in the charges against the players being dismissed. They also credit the blog with prompting the North Carolina State Bar to file an ethics complaint against Nifong, who in August surrendered his law license.
“I can name 100 prominent prosecutors—both federal and state—who read his blog every day,” Cheshire says of Johnson. “He had an opinion, of course, but he was very factual.”
According to Johnson, who co-wrote a book about the case, his writing is not biased. If it was, he says, no one would take him seriously.
“My blog had a point of view that was very critical of Nifong and the activist contingent of the faculty, but I was presenting arguments that were factually sound,” he adds.
David B. Freedman, a Winston-Salem, N.C., lawyer who defended Nifong’s discipline charges, disagrees. He characterizes Johnson’s work as having a biased agenda. He did follow Johnson’s blog, and Johnson was the first to report that Freedman was defending Nifong’s state bar charges.
Freedman, a principal at Crumpler Freedman Parker & Witt, posted a comment on the blog clarifying something Johnson wrote.
“They barely printed my side,” Freedman says. “I didn’t feel my response was properly characterized, but I didn’t hold that against him.”
In theory, Freedman says, blogs such as Johnson’s can’t influence a trial because they shouldn’t sway judges and jurors aren’t supposed to read them. But, he says, the blogs, even those with few readers, deliver a message that defense lawyers have no way of controlling.
“When people write for a newspaper, while they’re not always objective, at least in theory they are trying to be,” Freedman says. “There’s no requirement for these bloggers to try and be objective. And if something goes in print, it sort of becomes gospel to some people.”
But what the gospel really says depends on who’s interpreting it. So if a lawyer has his or her trial blogged, Reed says, he or she shouldn’t see the writing as a good prediction of how a jury will vote. She mentions that, initially, none of the true crime blogs predicted that the Spector trial would end with a hung jury.
‘IT SEEPS INTO THE JURY POOL’
Others say that predicting a verdict is not the point.
“It does take time [to read them], but it helps you see the case through others’ eyes,” Cheshire says. “In situations where people talk negatively about your client, you can learn a tremendous amount.”
“Swaying the public opinion is an enormously important part of what we do,” he adds. “It seeps into the jury pool and the prosecutor’s office, and it affects every decision that’s made in a case.”
Varinsky agrees. He advises clients to ask members of the jury pool what Internet sites they visit, including blogs, during voir dire.
And there’s a concern that jurors might read a blog about the case while they’re empaneled.
“All these issues of jurors seeing media materials they’re not supposed to see have been with us for years,” Reed says. “But there’s been a sudden change in the tools we’re using, and that takes us to a new dimension.”