MySpace Photo and Internet Gang Roster Evidence Improperly Admitted — People v. Beckley

[Post by Venkat]

People v. Beckley, Case No. B212529 (Cal. Ct. App. June 9, 2010)

Two defendants were convicted of a gang-related homicide in this case.

MySpace Photos: The girlfriend of one of the defendants offered an alibi that one of the defendants was babysitting her child at the time of the shooting. She also testified that the defendant ceased gang involvement (at her request) after the two became involved. In order to rebut the gang affiliation testimony, the prosecution offered a photograph of the girlfriend flashing a gang sign – the photograph was downloaded from the MySpace page of one of the defendants. The prosecution relied on the testimony of the detective who downloaded the photograph.

The court of appeals held that admission of the photograph was error (unfortunately for the defendants, the court held that this error was harmless). The court noted that there are two methods for authenticating a photograph: (1) testimony of a person who was present when the photograph was taken and (2) expert testimony that the photograph is not “a composite and had not been faked,” along with foundational testimony. Here, neither method of authentication was used. The court urged particular caution when it came to digital photos and photos found on the internet:

Although defendants conceded that the face in the MySpace photograph was Fulmore’s, neither method of authentication recognized in Bowley qualified the photo for admission as accurately depicting that Fulmore had assumed the pose shown in the photograph. [The detective] could not testify from his personal knowledge that the photograph truthfully portrayed Fulmore flashing the gang sign and . . . no expert testified that the picture was not a “‘composite’ or ‘faked'” photograph. Such expert testimony is even more critical today to prevent the admission of manipulated images than it was when Doggett and Bowley were decided. Recent experience shows that digital photographs can be changed to produce false images. (See e.g. U. S. v. Newsome (3d Cir. 2006) 439 F.3d 181, 183 [digital photographs used to make fake identification cards].)

. . . .

Indeed, with the advent of computer software programs such as Adobe Photoshop “it does not always take skill, experience, or even cognizance to alter a digital photo.” (Parry, Digital Manipulation and Photographic Evidence: Defrauding The Courts One Thousand Words At A Time (2009) 2009 J. L. Tech. & Pol’y 175, 183.) Even the Attorney General recognizes the untrustworthiness of images downloaded from the internet, quoting the court’s warning in St. Clair v. Johnny’s Oyster & Shrimp, Inc. (S.D. Tex 1999) 76 F. Supp.2d 773, 775 that “‘[a]nyone can put anything on the Internet. No web-site is monitored for accuracy and nothing contained therein is under oath or even subject to independent verification absent underlying documentation. Moreover, the Court holds no illusions that hackers can adulterate the content of any web-site from any location at any time.'”

Online Gang Roster: The prosecution also sought to show that defendants belonged to a gang (the Southside Compton Crips) and as evidence offered a roster which appeared on a web page.

The court found that this evidence was also improperly admitted. The detective admitted that “he did not know who authored the roster.” Although the detective claimed that “they themselves put [the list] together,” he did not explain the basis for this assertion. The court noted that the issue with respect to authenticity was not “whether the computer’s printer could be trusted to reliably print out what was . . . stored on some site but whether the content of what was on the site was reliable.”

Unfortunately for defendants, the court held that admission of this evidence was also harmless error. This is not the first time a court has found that MySpace gang affiliation evidence was improperly admitted but that the admission was harmless.

Additional Coverage: “‘Unauthenticated’ Photo From Website Held Inadmissible” (Metropolitan News-Enterprise)

Related:MySpace Evidence: Maryland Appeals Court Allows Circumstantial Authentication