Arias Key Witness Feels Social Media’s Heat
April 11, 2013
For three days this week, a domestic violence expert witness named Alyce LaViolette held her own against prosecutor Juan Martinez in the Jodi Arias murder case in Maricopa County Superior Court.
But LaViolette was annhilated in cyberspace.
The Arias case is an international phenomenon, reduced to a parable of good and evil when relayed in 140-character posts. Travis Alexander, the secret lover she killed in 2008, has become a cause celebre. Arias has become a pariah, and everyone associated with her is considered evil by thousands in the social-media audience.
LaViolette took the stand March 26, hired by the defense to persuade the jury that Arias was a victim of domestic abuse by Alexander.
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The tweets and other social media posts began appearing by the next week. “You can show your disgust with LaViolette,” they began, and they posted her office phone number and her website, and they suggested that people write negative reviews of her bestselling book on Amazon.com.
As of Tuesday, there were more than 500 of them, panning the book and calling LaViolette a fraud and a disgrace.
People also were calling the organizations that had booked her for speaking engagements, trying to persuade them to fire her.
And on a day when she and Martinez bickered over the meaning of stalking, someone had obviously followed her to dinner and later posted photos of her dining with Arias’s defense attorney Jennifer Willmott and one of her legal staff. The posted photo was accompanied by comments implying that somehow, defense attorneys are not allowed to communicate with the experts they hire.
The barrage of cyberstalking was the subject of lengthy meetings in a judge’s chambers on Monday. It sent LaViolette to the emergency room last weekend.
Legal observers are not certain if it constitutes witness tampering, slander, or just an expression of free speech.
“It’s the electronic version of a lynch mob,” said retired Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Kenneth Fields.
But it is probably a taste of a future to come.
Sree Sreenivasan, chief digital officer and professor of journalism at Columbia University, said he had never seen anything like the attack on LaViolette.
“This is a logical extension of witness intimidation, taken to an extreme conclusion,” he said.
But he believes we will see it again.
“I imagine this is going to be standard operating procedure in prominent cases,” he said.
Jodi Arias, 32, admits killing Alexander, 30, but she claims she did so in self-defense. He was found in June 2008 in the shower of his Mesa home, with nearly 30 stab wounds, a bullet in the head and a slit throat.
The case evidence has played out in digital format, from steamy photos and an X-rated phone-sex call recorded on a mobile phone to hundreds of text messages, instant messages, e-mails, MySpace pages and blog posts.
It has spawned a social media sub-cult of followers who chronicle the trial on Twitter and Facebook pages, with pages that support Alexander or condemn Arias. Martinez has been raised to folk-hero status, frequently photo-shopped with photos of Alexander to make it look as if the two are standing arm in arm. Tweets fly every day during trial, exchanging conspiracy theories, mostly praising Martinez and damning the Arias defense team. Some of it lapses into obscenity, such as the tweeter who uses a screen-grab photo of Arias’ nether regions as an Avatar.
The social-media subcult has not been content to merely watch the trial. It has decided to take part.
LaViolette, 65, has worked as a counselor and psychotherapist for battered women since 1978. She has founded programs in domestic abuse, written books about the subject, given speeches at conferences and testified as an expert witness in trials.
During her testimony in the Arias trial, she described domestic abuse, and then walked the jury through why she felt that Arias had been controlled, manipulated, and physically, sexually and emotionally abused by Alexander. Martinez fought her bitterly, questioning her theories and her credentials, trying to make her crack and bumble as he had done to earlier witnesses. LaViolette, who spent a career counseling aggressive people, did not back down.
Since Martinez began cross-examining LaViolette late last week, the two have traded insults like a pair of boxers throwing kidney punches in the clinch. The slugfest was a stalemate, and trial watchers saw what they wanted to see: Martinez bobbing and weaving with rapid-fire questions that he demanded be answered by yes or no; LaViolette standing her ground and occasionally stinging Martinez with jabs like, “If you were in my group, Mr. Martinez, I would ask you to take a time out.”
The cyber cult took up the Twitter suggestions to harass LaViolette.
“Shame on you Alyce!!! I hope Jodi gets the death penalty and you watch your career flush down the toilet,” a person named Carol wrote as a review to LaViolette’s book, It Could Happen To Anyone: Why Battered Women Stay.
“She looks like Harry Potter’s grandmother and I am sure that she has a crush on Jodi Arias because why else would she lie for that skank killer!” wrote C. Pride”Mommyof5.”
They have attacked other segments of her career.
“I’ve been contacted by numerous people asking that she be removed from our speaker’s list,” said Rick Kenworthy of ABIP Training in Los Angeles, an organization that provides training for abuse counselors.
One of LaViolette’s friends, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution, said that LaViolette was getting countless angry phone calls and e-mails at her own office in Long Beach, at least one of which was serious enough that her colleagues contacted police.
The friend said that the stress of the harassment had driven LaViolette to the emergency room last weekend for anxiety attacks and palpitation.
In Arizona it is a felony to tamper with or influence a witness.
“I think it’s an effort to dissuade the witness from testifying free of outside influence,” David Derickson, a former Superior Court judge who now practices law, said of the attacks on LaViolette.
But what can be done, especially if it’s coming from other states, even other countries?
Fields, the retired judge said, “If it’s just the general public and there’s no intention (by the prosecution), then there’s nothing to be done about it.”
Derickson also wondered if it constituted slander.
“They’re trying to destroy her reputation,” he said.
Fields thought one solution would be to turn off the TV cameras. “I think we’re going to have to revisit the policy of televised trials,” he said.
But David Bodney,a First Amendment attorney who represents The Arizona Republic, balked at that idea.
“I think it’s entirely unfair to blame camera coverage for a group of persons who are expressing their views,” he said. “The court has the authority to take steps to protect that witness from threats and other misconduct.”