KNOXVILLE (WATE) – An appeals court has ruled attorneys for former University of Tennessee football players A.J. Johnson and Michael Williams have the right to seek the social media history of the alleged victim and three witnesses in a high-profile rape trial.
“It’s a landmark decision, said defense attorney Greg Isaacs. “What this has done is open the door in each criminal prosecution for lawyers asking for social media.”
Judge Bob McGee ruled in 2015 that the victim and witnesses could not be subpoenaed for their social media communication, but the social media providers could be subpoenaed. Both the defense and the prosecution appealed this decision. McGee said the law had not caught up with technology and left it open for another court to rule.More online: Read the full ruling [PDF]
Isaacs said the ruling not only sets a precedent, but it also comes with consequences.
“What it’s going to do is have a chilling effect on people coming forward that are victims in criminal cases, because if you come forward, you know your social media, your communications, no matter how intimate or embarrassing, can get in the defense lawyer’s hands,” he said.
The decision also raises questions about the role social media companies will play in distributing information.
“Another dynamic is how does the information become provided by social media providers such as Twitter, Google, etc. and at the same time, can the Tennessee courts order a corporation in a different forum?” Isaacs said.
Though the trial has not started yet, the case is already leaving its mark in the courtroom.
“A lot of hurdles have to be cleared, but a very dramatic change in Tennessee law,” Isaacs said. “If you’re someone who’s concerned about your privacy, a blow for privacy rights. If you’re a defendant, this is a big victory, because it allows defense lawyers to leave no stone unturned and look at social media.”
Williams and Johnson are both charged with two counts of aggravated rape and two counts of aiding and abetting rape for the incident that took place November 2014. A 19-year-old woman reported being forcibly raped by both men at a large gathering at a south Knoxville apartment.Previous story: A.J. Johnson, Michael Williams rape trial delayed
Their trials had been delayed pending the outcome of the appeal. The case has now been remanded to trial court to set dates.