Is Social Media A Threat To Justice? The Morcombe Trial

A child was abducted and killed, but the trial may be delayed due to social media, raising questions about how social media impacts justice and the right to fair trial.

A child was abducted and killed, but the trial may be delayed due to social media, raising questions about how social media impacts justice and the right to fair trial.
Daniel Morcombe was born on December 19th, 1989 in Australia. He disappeared in December 2003, and despite extensive media coverage, he was never found. However, this August, a man – 41 year old Brett Peter Cowan – was charged with the murder of Morcombe. The charge comes eight years after Morcombe disappeared, and Cowan faces several charges including: murder, indecent treatment of a child under 16, child stealing, deprivation of liberty and misconduct with a corpse.  Cowan admits being a suspect in the investigation but maintains his innocence. However, it may – temporarily – all be for naught. Due to conversations about Cowan’s guilt on social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook, the trial may be delayed.

The Morcombe case has consistently received a fair amount of attention in Queensland, despite the time which has passed since the disappearance, So, it is no surprise that when news of an arrest hit the social media sphere, people were eager to weigh in. However, these conversations are threatening the trial. Power once held by major media organizations is now held by individuals, and as such, anyone who discusses the Morcombe case could jeopardize legal proceedings. Officials have warned that social media users who do so could face hefty penalties.

As for the trial itself, the worst case scenario is that the judge grants a permanent stay. According to Queensland University of Technology expert Peter Black: “There are rules that have developed over time that ensures there is not material out there in the public domain that has the capacity to interfere with the administration of justice or to potentially prejudicially affect a fair trial. He further notes that “”There’s more issues now around the proliferation of the internet than there has ever been in our history.”

Black’s colleague at the University of Queensland Dr. Rhonda Breit adds that it is becoming progressively difficult in high profile court case to find impartial juries, “but research suggests that instructions to jurors on what they should take into account are highly effective at rectifying the prejudicial effect of any publicity.”

Broadly, the case raises questions about how social media impacts the judicial process. An impartial jury in major cases is an essential part of most justice systems; however, with the proliferation of social media, are impartial juries on major cases still a realistic possibility? If not, how should courts adjust to account for “the social media” factor in trials?

The current solution – threaten social media users with hefty penalties for discussing the case throughout the trial – seems impractical at best. Moreover, delaying the trial is likely a frustrating solution for all parties involved.

However, it is not immediately clear what other course of action courts should take. Lawmakers and justice departments need to seriously consider how social media impacts the justice system and put guidelines in place to acknowledge the new technology. It isn’t just the world that’s changing; it’s the courtroom too.