Tuesday, June 30, 2009

MySpace Assault Case

A law dictionary defines “assault” as the “threat or use of force on another that causes that person to have a reasonable apprehension of imminent harmful . . . contact; the act of putting another person in reasonable fear . . . of an immediate battery by means of an act amounting to an attempt or threat to commit battery”. Black’s Law Dictionary (8th ed. 2004). It defines “battery” as the “use of force against another, resulting in harmful or offensive contact.” We’ll get back to assault in a minute.

This post is about a Tennessee case involving what was, in effect, a MySpace assault. The facts in the case are a little complicated (and a little bizarre):
[In] February of 2007, [Wesley Carroll] was browsing the internet on his home computer at approximately 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. He . . . was having trouble sleeping and was `looking through profiles; on . . . www.MySpace.com. . . [Brandon’ Medley knocked on his door and appeared intoxicated. . . . Medley stepped into his home with [Thomas] Tucker, whom he had not met. . . . Medley asked if Carroll wanted to buy . . . or trade prescription pills for marijuana. Carroll responded that he did not want any marijuana. . . . Medley asked to use his computer to access his MySpace account but that . . . was unable to operate the computer. Medley then asked Carroll to log him into his account, and Mr. Carroll complied. . . .

[W]hile he was interacting with Medley near his computer, Carroll noticed he had left his wallet lying on a table near where Tucker was sitting. . . . [and then] noticed [it] had been taken from the table. He . . . `hurried over to where [his] wallet was and Tucker was sitting.’ . . . Tucker had the wallet and was taking money from it. Carroll asked Tucker, `[D]o you mind getting your hand out of my wallet?' Tucker then rushed toward Mr. Carroll, struck him in the jaw, and placed him in a `choke hold.’

Carroll . . . asked Medley to stop Tucker. . . . Medley walked behind him and he heard Medley and Tucker whispering behind his back. Carroll . . . overheard Tucker say, `I thought you told me to,’ and that Medley responded inaudibly. . . .Tucker said, `. . . . I am going to give you your money back, and don't swing on me when you get up. I am going to get out of here. I am going to walk away.”. . . Tucker released [Carroll] and threw his money on the floor. Tucker left while Medley remained in the home. Carroll . . . stared at Medley `with hate in [his] eyes’. . . . Medley then left.

[About five minutes after they left, Carroll] counted the money Tucker had thrown on the floor and noticed he was missing approximately $80 from the $300 in his wallet. After discovering Medley had failed to log off his MySpace account, Carroll decided to `get even’ with Medley. Carroll `wrote all kinds of vulgar, derogatory statements’ alleging that Medley was a homosexual. Carroll changed the password for Medley's MySpace account so that he could no longer access his MySpace profile. . . .

[B]etween 2:30 and 3:00 a.m. on March 19, 2007, [Carroll] was at his home playing a video game and falling asleep when he heard `[a] kick, a boom’ at his door. Upon hearing another, louder kick, Carroll awoke and stood up. . . . [A]fter . . . a third kick, his door opened and that Medley came through the door. . . . [A] man wearing a mask accompanied Medley. . . . [T]he second man later removed the mask, and [Carroll] identified him as Tucker. . . .

Medley. . .` beat [Carroll] with the stick.' . . . . Carroll . . . fell on his back and Tucker held his feet as Medley . . . `reared back’ to punch him. . . . Medley was `ranting’ about what Carroll did to his MySpace profile. Carroll testified that, after he `reared back,' Mr. Medley apparently decided not to strike him again and let him stand. . . .

Carroll ran toward his bedroom to find his portable telephone. . . . Tucker pulled off his mask and said, `Hold on. . . . Let's search this place.’ Carroll `just froze” and observed Tucker remove a .25 caliber handgun from Carroll's desk. . . . [T]he pistol . . .was very old. [Carroll] did not know whether the gun functioned. Tucker pulled back the slide . . . and observed. . . .a .22 caliber rimfire bullet, although the pistol was a .25 caliber center-fire weapon. . . . Tucker . . . struck [Carroll] with the gun and `jabb[ed]’ the knife in his direction several times. . . .

Carroll . . . hit the `page button on . . . his cordless telephone to determine the location of the telephone's portable receiver. He heard [it] beeping in his bathroom, and fought with Medley to get to the receiver. . . . Carroll managed to emulate dialing 9-1-1. . . . [Medley and Tucker left]. . . . Tucker took the pistol with him when he left.
State v. Medley, 2009 WL 1676051 (Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals 2009). Police arrived and took Carroll to the hospital. He “received three or four stitches on his face, eight or nine stitches on his ear, and . . .his head was `busted.’” State v. Medley, supra.

Medley told police he came to the house to talk to Carroll about Carroll's changing his MySpace password. Medley said the fight resulted from that and denied he or Tucker hit Carroll with anything. State v. Medley, supra. Medley was charged with and convicted of aggravated robbery; Tucker was charged with and convicted of facilitating aggravated robbery. State v. Medley, supra.

On the facts, I think it’s clear Medley could have been charged with assault: He used force against Carroll and, in so doing, put Carroll in reasonable apprehension of further harmful contact. That, though, is not all Medley and Tucker did: They also, according to Carroll and the prosecutor, took Carroll’s gun . . . and that is a another crime, robbery.

Tennessee defines robbery as the intentional "theft of property from the person of another by violence or putting the person in fear.” Tennessee Code § 39-13-401(a). The prosecutor in this case, though, didn’t just charge Medley with robbery: He charged him with aggravated robbery. Aggravated robbery is robbery that is “[a]ccomplished with a deadly weapon” and in which “the victim suffers serious bodily injury”. Tennessee Code § 39-13-403. Tennessee law defines “serious bodily injury” as “bodily injury involving `substantial risk of death,` `[p]rotracted unconsciousness,’ `[e]xtreme physical pain’ [or] `[p]rotracted or obvious disfigurement’”. State v. Medley, supra. Carroll suffered “extreme pain for three weeks” after the incident, had “periodic headaches” for months and “displayed scarring from the incident.” State v. Medley, supra.

As I noted, Medley was convicted of aggravated robbery. He appealed, claiming the evidence was “`highly circumstantial’” and therefore, I’m guessing, insufficient to support the conviction. State v. Medley, supra. (The court points out that the brief Medley's lawyer submitted on appeal says the evidence “in the record is insufficient as a matter of law to sustain a conviction for the offense of Forgery”, which suggests the lawyer didn’t read the brief very carefully.)

As I explained in an earlier post, there’s nothing wrong with circumstantial evidence, as long as it meets the requirements to be admissible in court. And as I noted, convictions are often based purely on circumstantial evidence. The Court of Criminal Appeals rather summarily rejected Medley’s argument as to the insufficiency of the evidence; as you can see from the quoted passages above, it went into great detail summarizing what was proven at trial. The court therefore held that the jury “acted within its province” I convicting Medley of aggravated robbery.

There aren’t any novel or interesting legal issues in this case. I find it interesting that changing a MySpace password (and posting “vulgar, derogatory comments”) resulted in one person being beaten and two others going to jail. Says something, I guess, about how much our online lives mean to us.

(I'm posting this a little earlier than I usually do, because I'm out of the country and don't have internet access all the time.)

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