Amici Curiae: The Killing Cameraman, Defamatory Tweet, and Viral Trial Edition

NPR Woes

It’s been a rough two weeks for U.S. National Public Radio. Following a hidden-camera prank lunch by conservative prankster James O’Keefe in which NPR executives Ron and Vivian Schiller were caught slighting the Tea Party, both members were forced to resign based on their personal statements’ perceived left-wing bias.

As a result, Republicans have successfully voted to slash government funding for the NPR following a renewed and strengthened case. Republicans have long viewed the spending as unaffordable, and since the influx of Republicans following the recent Congressional elections, the NPR has become a poster-child of wasteful spending which must be slashed if the U.S. is ever to balance its deficit. Analysts have also posited that the renewed push is meant to demonstrate party unity following some disagreement over a a recent spending bill that temporarily saved the government from having to shut down.

Unsurprisingly, the White House opposed the bill, arguing that the majority of public money actually goes to local, small-scale initiatives. It is not yet clear whether President Obama will veto the bill.

Cuba-U.S. Relations Still Rocky Despite Overall Thaw

On Saturday, March 12, the Cuban government sentenced Alan Gross, an employee of a company contracted by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), to 15 years in jail for ‘crimes against the state’. Gross was participating in a program to improve internet access through the distribution of internet-connectivity devices, which are strictly controlled by the Cuban state, and possibly satellite equipment as well, which is outright banned. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday called for Gross’s release, stating that the U.S. “deplore[s] the injustice toward Alan Gross.”

The row comes after two years of attempted warming of relations between the countries by the Obama administration which has had varying degrees of success. While in light of the U.S.’s history of trying to kill or discredit former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, one might be less than surprised that current leader and brother of Fidel, Raul Castro, has not been as reciprocating as the Obama administration might have hoped. Given the new tone of U.S.-Cuba relations since 2009, the recent incidents regarding Mr. Gross are rightly viewed as a disappointment.

Fact or Fiction?

An independent filmmaker Mark Andrew Twitchell has been charged with first-degree murder in death of a 38-year-old oilfield worker Johnny Brian Altinger. Prosecutors alleged that Twitchell posed as a woman on an online dating service website, and lured Altinger to a garage where he was killed. The remains of Atlinger were found in a sewer less than two blocks from Twitchell’s parents’ house in June 2010.

This alleged killing mirrored a scene in Twitchell’s movie called “House of Cards”, which is a movie about a male killer who lures people to a garage, forces personal information from them and then dismembers them. This movie was filmed in the same garage two weeks before the alleged events took place. Furthermore, on Twitchell’s laptop, prosecutors found a deleted file called SKConfessions, detailing a story of “ my progression into becoming a serial killer.”

The trial started on Wednesday, and 72 witnesses are scheduled to testify over the course of seven weeks. At trial, Justice Terry Clackson denied journalists and the general public to have Internet access in the courtroom due to concerns for trial fairness and limiting disruptions.

Should Internet Access be Allowed in Courtrooms?

As mentioned, an Edmonton judge is banning the use of electronic devices in courtrooms to ensure the fairness of a jury trial. Ontario’s Attorney General Chris Bentley is calling for a national debate on whether social media tools like Twitter and Facebook should be allowed in Canadian courtrooms.

This debate originated from the high-profile case of Russell Williams, when disturbing photographs and unrestricted details from the courtroom spread viral over the Internet. Because journalists were allowed to bring their laptops and audio recording devices to the courtrooms, they were reporting live as the hearing unfolded.

The Criminal lawyer who represented Williams, Michael Edelson, thought that new ground rules are required to ensure fairness in jury trials for the following three reasons. First, he said that the context is often lost in Twitter posts because each Tweet is limited to 140 characters each. Second, cases should be decided solely based on the evidence heard inside courtrooms, to the exclusion of everything else. Third, information related to potential jurors could be mined using Social Networking websites, so lawyers may find out information including their “likes” and “activities” that could potentially be exploited.

“The public interest is not served by where they don’t properly understand court proceedings and they don’t understand why a certain verdict or certain sentence emanates from the court, because they haven’t been given enough information to make a decision for themselves,” Edelson said.

The principle of trial fairness is an integral point of procedure which must not be ignored. While judges should always instruct the jurors to not rely on outside research in making decisions, it is questionable whether jurors comply with this with access to it, made easier by this technology.

Suing over a Basketball Tweet

“Ref Bill Spooner told Rambis he’d ‘get it back’ after a bad call. Then he made an even worse call on Rockets. That’s NBA officiating folks.”

Defendant Krawczynski published this statement on his Associated Press Twitter account during a NBA Rockets-Timberwolves game on January 24th. Subsequently, NBA referee Bill Spooner filed a lawsuit against the Associated Press and sportswriter Krawcynski for defamation over this 138-character Tweet.

In the complaint, Spooner claims that because of the Twitter post, he was subject to a disciplinary investigation by the NBA, and his “professional and business reputation as a working, officiating NBA referee has been, and remains, disparaged.” He also claims the defendant published the Twitter statement “knowingly, recklessly, and negligently implied to the NBA, the coaches, the players, and to the viewing public that Referee Spooner intended to, and did, make a false officiating call on Coach Rambis’ behalf in order to add points to the Timberwolves, a form of game fixing.”

Nicholas Paul Granath, Spooner’s lawyer, told the Pioneer-Press: “It’s one thing to criticize referees and their judgment … but this gets into making up something that didn’t happen, and that something goes to the heart of the integrity of the referee,”

AP’s counsel responded: “We believe all of the facts we reported from the game in question were accurate.”

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