Multimedia reporter

I’m Innocent. Just Check My Status on Facebook.

THE NEW YORK TIMES, published 11 November, 2009


The message on Rodney Bradford’s Facebook page, posted at 11:49 a.m. on Oct. 17, asked where his pancakes were. The words were typed from a computer in his father’s apartment in Harlem.

Rodney Bradford used Facebook to provide an alibi in a robbery case.

At the time, the sentence, written in street slang, was just another navel-gazing, cryptic Facebook status update — meaningless to anyone besides Mr. Bradford. But when Mr. Bradford, 19, was arrested the next day as a suspect in a robbery at the Farragut Houses in Brooklyn, where he lives, the words took on greater importance. They became his alibi.

His defense lawyer, Robert Reuland, told a Brooklyn assistant district attorney, Lindsay Gerdes, about the Facebook entry, which was made at the time of the robbery. The district attorney subpoenaed Facebook to verify that the words had been typed from a computer at an apartment at 71 West 118th Street in Manhattan, the home of Mr. Bradford’s father. When that was confirmed, the charges were dropped.

“This is the first case that I’m aware of in which a Facebook update has been used as alibi evidence,” said John G. Browning, a lawyer in Dallas who studies social networking and the law. “We are going to see more of that because of how prevalent social networking has become.”

With more people revealing the details of their lives online, sites like Facebook, MySpaceand Twitter are providing evidence in legal battles.

Up to now, social networking activity has mostly been used as prosecutorial evidence, Mr. Browning said. He cited a burglary case in September in Martinsburg, Pa., in which the burglar used the victim’s computer to log on to Facebook and forgot to log off. The police followed the digital trail to Jonathan G. Parker, 19, who was arrested.

As part of his defense, a suspect in an Indiana murder case, Ian J. Clark, claimed he was not the kind of man who could kill his girlfriend’s child. But remarks he was found to have posted on MySpace left him vulnerable to character examination, Mr. Browning said, contributing to his conviction and a sentence of life in prison without parole.

In civil cases, too, online communications have helped strengthen evidence, especially indivorce cases, where they are often used as proof of cheating.

And postings by a probationary sheriff’s deputy, Brian Quinn, 26, of Marion County, Fla., on his MySpace page led to his firing in June 2006 for “conduct unbecoming an officer.”

Such cases are becoming more prevalent in part because Congress in 2006 mandated changes to the federal rules of civil procedure, expanding the acceptance of electronically stored information as evidence.

With the use of a Facebook update as an alibi, such communications may also be used to prove innocence, Mr. Browning said.

Mr. Bradford’s arrest was for the mugging at gunpoint of Jeremy Dunklebarger and Rolando Perez-Lorenzo at 11:50 a.m. on Oct. 17, according to Mr. Reuland, Mr. Bradford’s lawyer.

Mr. Bradford, who was facing charges in a previous robbery, contended he was in Harlem at the time of the Oct. 17 robbery — a claim supported by Mr. Bradford’s father, Rodney Bradford Sr., and his stepmother, Ernestine Bradford, Mr. Reuland said.

Mr. Reuland acknowledged that, in principle, anyone who knew Mr. Bradford’s user name and password could have typed the Facebook update, but he regards it as unlikely.

“This implies a level of criminal genius that you would not expect from a young boy like this; he is not Dr. Evil,” Mr. Reuland said, adding that the Facebook entry was just “icing on the cake,” since his client had other witnesses who provided an alibi.

Jonah Bruno, a spokesman for the Brooklyn district attorney, Charles J. Hynes, said he could not discuss details of the case because it was sealed. But he acknowledged that Facebook was crucial to the charges’ being dropped.

But Joseph A. Pollini, who teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said prosecutors should not have been so quick to drop the charges.

“With a user name and password, anyone can input data in a Facebook page,” Mr. Pollini said.

“Some of the brightest people on the Internet are teenagers,” he said. “They know the Internet better than a lot of people. Why? Because they use it all the time.”

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