Virginia Beach police thought they were done with the case of Lakeira Calahan.
The baby girl's uncle pleaded guilty to neglect in Lakeira's May 2009 death and served a yearlong jail sentence. The girl's mother, stepfather and older brother moved to Arkansas. More than two years passed.
A Facebook conversation changed everything.
In messages between a friend and a Facebook user appearing to be Lakeira's mother, Julie Calahan, the 23-year-old mother talks about hurting Lakeira the morning before her death, causing the baby girl's fatal injuries, a detective testified in court.
The friend turned over the messages to Child Protective Services, which sent them to a Virginia Beach police detective, who reopened the investigation, questioned Calahan and charged her in Lakeira's death.
Calahan now awaits trial on charges of second-degree murder and felony child neglect. If convicted, she faces up to 60 years in prison.
Cases like Calahan's are becoming increasingly common as people communicate more and more via social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, leaving behind a record that can end up in the hands of police, prosecutors and defense attorneys.
Local attorneys said evidence from social media factors into almost every case they handle now, although it's less common for that evidence to form the backbone of a case, as it did with Julie Calahan.
More often, photos, status updates and exchanges on social media sites help guide police investigations and contribute to a larger pool of more traditional evidence sources.
The result can be damning.
In a 2010 case in Virginia Beach, prosecutors used lyrics a 25-year-old man posted on his Myspace page to convict him of threatening to kill his girlfriend. He appealed to the state Court of Appeals, which upheld the conviction and, for the first time, ruled that a 1998 law criminalizing electronic threats included communications via social networking sites.
In a case in Portsmouth the year before, prosecutors during sentencing used a YouTube video posted by a murder defendant while he was awaiting trial. The video showed the young man rapping about violence and a mother crying in a morgue, evidence prosecutors used to argue he was bragging about the victim's murder. He got 25 years in prison.
More often, police use social media to track suspects, especially gang members, who often detail their activities online, including uploading incriminating photos of themselves flashing gang signs and posing with guns.
Some police departments are turning to sites such as Facebook to seek the public's help solving cases.
In a murder case that concluded in Suffolk last week, police set up a "Catch Katina's Killer" page on Facebook to seek information on the strangling death of 31-year-old Katina Jones. The page grew to more than 1,300 fans, and 34-year-old Larry Nicholas O'Neal turned himself in. He pleaded guilty and on Wednesday received a 35-year prison sentence.
Admissions by people on social media sites also can alter the outcome of domestic and civil cases.
Judge Randall Blow, chief judge of Virginia Beach Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court, said he once presided over a custody hearing at which a child's father presented photos uploaded by the child's mother on Facebook showing her dressed in skimpy clothing and drinking at various bars. The man used the photos to argue the mother's lifestyle made her an unfit parent.
Evidence like that can have an impact on a judge's decision, Blow said.
"It wouldn't be the only factor to consider, but it would be a factor," Blow said. "It actually could have quite a bit of weight."
Attorneys also can use evidence from social media to, for example, prove a plaintiff in a civil suit is lying about or exaggerating an injury, said Norfolk attorney Peter Decker III, who handles personal injury suits throughout the region.
"They'll go on someone's Facebook, which is easy to access, and they see pictures of people waterskiing, snow skiing, bungee jumping, moving heavy furniture," he said. "So if they can get that information in front of a jury and you can lay the proper foundation and get a judge to accept it into evidence, that can be fatal to someone's case."
Social media has altered other aspects of the criminal justice system. For example, this year a state Supreme Court committee added explicit language barring jurors from using social media to discuss pending cases, a problem that's arisen in other states and resulted in several mistrials. Blow said he often includes Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites in his protection orders banning contact between parties.
The Virginia State Bar tracks ethical issues concerning how attorneys communicate by and glean evidence from social media, said James McCauley, ethics counsel for the state bar. For example, the bar prohibits attorneys from using their legal aides or secretaries to contact individuals on the opposing side of a criminal or civil matter on Facebook, he said.
And when it comes time each year for attorneys to complete the 12 hours of additional training their licenses require, social media is a hot subject, McCauley said.
"Social media has been without a doubt the most popular topic on the lecture circuit," he said. "Not just in legal ethics, but in courses on litigation and trial tactics."
Virginia Beach Circuit Judge Edward W. Hanson Jr. said he's often amazed by the self-destructive evidence people create on social-media sites.
"It shocks me sometimes, the things that people write," he said. "We all say these words, but to see them in print, it's just another level."
Decker said people often seem to think their posts on social media are private, but a tech-savvy investigator, a search warrant, a subpoena or even a loose-lipped friend can easily strip that privacy away.
"Now, if I have someone who's being investigated for alleged illegal activities," he said, "it's one of the first things I advise them to do: Stay off Facebook."
Most Popular Stories
- The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tenn., John Beifuss column
- Cabot Street Cinema in Beverly for sale
- Will Yahoo Splurge on $1-Billion acquisition of Tumblr?
- Entrepreneurs Chase Social Media
- European Car Sales up First Time in 20 Months
- Financial Times Twitter, Email Hacked
- Travel Startup Localeur Expands to Houston
- Google Fiber Making an Impact
- Jolie Mastectomy Raises Legal Questions
- Facebook, Twitter Announce Apps for Google Glass