Aug. 27, 2015 (Mimesis Law) —On Wednesday morning, WDBJ-TV viewers in Roanoke, Virginia witnessed the fatal shootings of reporter Alison Parker and camera operator Adam Ward during a live broadcast of the station’s morning show. Authorities believe the shooter to be the victims’ former colleague, Vester Lee Flanagan II. As an on-air reporter for WDBJ and several other stations throughout the country, Flanagan used the on-air name “Bryce Williams.”
Bryce Williams Live-Tweeted Murder
Among the many chilling pieces of the story is that Flanagan essentially reported on his crime himself in, virtually, real time.
Flanagan appears to have filmed the fatal shooting, posted the video to Facebook, then tweeted, “I filmed the shooting see Facebook”. He apparently also released a series of online messages accusing the TV station and Parker of racism, and expressing outrage at Ward for reporting Flanagan to station bosses after the two men worked together. Twitter and Facebook quickly suspended the accounts, which were listed under Flanagan’s on-air name.
ABC News reported that, approximately 90 minutes before the shooting, Flanagan faxed a 23-page message to the press outlet. According to reports of the fax, Flanagan wrote about his experiences being attacked for his race and sexual orientation. Flanagan was black and gay. He reportedly intended to give Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof the “race war” he was supposedly after.
A Method For Their Madness Or a Method For Law-Enforcement Abuse?
There’s nothing especially novel about a disturbed person sending a screed to a news outlet before committing a dramatic crime. If anything, Flanagan’s use of a fax machine to transmit his message to ABC News seems antiquated. He might as well have sent his missive via a courier on horseback.
Twitter and Facebook, though, are relatively new methods for the homicidal or suicidal to get their messages across. Social media as a tool for documenting violent intentions or acts poses difficult questions for the press and the public.
On one hand, a suspect’s social media trail can provide valuable evidence of a crime that he plans to commit or has committed. On the other hand, law enforcement has a growing history of abusing social media posts as evidence against people who may or may not have genuine criminal intentions.
For example, in 2013, then 18-year-old Justin Carter was held for months on charges that he violated terroristic threat statutes in Comal County, Texas. Carter had posted comments on the Facebook page for the League of Legends game. When a fellow gamer accused him of being “crazy,” Carter wrote about a plan to “shoot up a kindergarten, watch the blood rain down and eat the beating heart out of one of them.” A Canadian woman who saw Carter’s comments reported him to law enforcement, despite the fact that the teen included the digital-age caveats of “LOL” and “JK” in his string of comments. Though Carter was eventually released, I criticized the handling of the case, as did many other civil libertarians.
There are also more ambiguous cases where authorities act on social media posts by individuals who might be joking . . . or might not. Just this week, Boston police arrested two young men on their way to — wait for it — the Pokemon World Championships.
Kevin Norton, age 18, and James Stumbo, age 27, traveled to Boston from Iowa to compete in the “masters” division of the competition. Before their arrival, an online forum moderator contacted the competition organizers about worrisome comments by the two young men. The powers-that-be at Pokemon then contacted private security services at the Hynes Convention Center. Private security then contacted Boston police.
Among the comments allegedly made by the men: Stumbo responded to being booted from a Pokemon chat forum by writing, ““Oh, ok, that’s fine then I will just shoot him on Friday thanks.” He also posted a photograph of what appears to be his car, emblazoned with an NRA sticker, with guns splayed on the trunk. The caption read, “Kevin Norton and I are ready for worlds Boston here we come!!!”
While it may be hard for some readers to take seriously the poorly punctuated quips of men above the age of majority who spend their time distinguishing between Bulbasaur and Patrat, Norton and Stumbo allegedly did show up in Boston with more than just Pokemon cards and tasteless senses of humor. Boston police charged them with unlawful possession of a firearm, unlawful possession of ammunition, and unlawful possession of a large capacity rifle. While they have not charged the men with any offenses directly related to the alleged online threats, Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley told the press that the investigation is ongoing.
Based on the facts now known to the public, the authenticity of any threat posed by the Pokemon players is unclear.
Of course, no consideration of concerns over potentially threatening social media posts would be complete without mentioning the case of Anthony Elonis. Elonis, under the nom de plume “Tone Dougie,” posted graphically violent rap lyrics to his Facebook page, describing a multitude of ways that he might punish his estranged wife. He claims that the lyrics were art, while authorities treated them as criminal threats. The United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in Elonis v. United States in June of this year, after Elonis challenged his conviction under a threat statute. Although SCOTUS did not satisfy public curiosity about the outward limits of Facebook jackassery, it did address — sort of — important questions about what the requisite culpable mental state for threat statutes must be in order to meet constitutional minimums.
Telling His Own Tale?
Vester Flanagan’s gunman’s-point-of-view video of Wednesday’s shooting is chilling. However, in some ways it is his earlier use of social media that is most vexing. It prompts speculation about what sorts of hints we should pick up and act on. Just as troubling, however, Flanagan’s use of Twitter and Facebook forces us to question who gets to tell the story of a violent crime.
In the weeks leading up to Wednesday’s tragedy, Flanagan seemed to have been building a digital record for the media to pick up after the shooting. He posted old photographs of himself, along with a collection of his professional clips. He tweeted about a discrimination suit against a former employer, another TV station, from 2000. He defended his previous work as a model and “high-paid companion.”
Flanagan’s trip down memory lane via Twitter may have created a convenient online biography for others to access after the troubled former reporter’s crime and suicide. Was Flanagan, himself a reporter, trying to do other journalists on tight deadlines a solid by assembling all the bits and pieces they might need to profile him in their coverage? Perhaps Vester Lee Flanagan was savvy enough to know that some journalist was going to craft the spin for his bio and it might as well be him.
Whether Vester Lee Flanagan’s social media activity should have caused concern before he took the lives of two people may be no more than academic speculation at this point. But whether we allow Flanagan’s tweets and posts to dictate how the story of his crime is reported now remains a live question.
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