District Attorney Seth Williams yesterday sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg urging him to remove what he says are potentially life-threatening posts intimidating witnesses.
"We all know that Facebook is often used as a way for people to get messages out," Williams said.
"Unfortunately a lot of the defendants, the people we see at the Criminal Justice Center, have Facebook pages as well, and they're sending messages about their criminal enterprises, about how to intimidate people, about how to hurt people to other people. And of course we're trying to do all we can to protect witnesses."
Central to Williams' plea is the case of 20-year-old Freddie Henriquez, who in August allegedly obtained the statement of a witness testifying against four of his friends regarding illegal gun transactions and posted on his page photos of the statement with the caption "rats."
Though Henriquez has been charged with witness retaliation, witness intimidation and making terroristic threats, the Facebook posts as of yesterday morning remained online, according to Williams. He said Facebook officials have refused prosecutors' repeated requests for the posts' removal.
"We in law enforcement have to keep up with the technology of the defendants," Williams said. "We need [Zuckerberg] to help us protect witnesses by not allowing filth to be on Facebook, where people actually identify the person as a rat and demand that the rats be killed."
He said no legal action is currently being taken against the popular site, but it's possible the site could in the future "be seen to be somehow advancing the criminal enterprise" and be held criminally culpable."
"When incidents like this occur on Facebook, it erodes all the work and all the attempts that we're trying to do to protect witnesses and ensure their safety," said assistant director of Victims Services Leland Kent.
"It also impacts witnesses with the fear factor. This is used almost like a bully pulpit and what we try to do is assist them with long term housing and a safety plan, but when witnesses see this, it's almost like, 'Where will I go? where is the impact?' and it multiplies their fear factor exponentially."
The District Attorney's Office said in an email that some of the allegedly threatening posts on the Facebook page of Henriquez, who was recently freed on bail, were yesterday afternoon taken down following the press conference.
Williams said he found little solace in the posts' removal. "Every day they were viewed by the public is a day this witness’s safety was in jeopardy," he said.
"I take no comfort in the fact that this defendant was able to raise $25,000, got out of jail and removed some of the life threatening material on his own once his name was in the paper. This should have happened in November when this office first approached Facebook’s security team.”
– Sept. 19, 2012. Mark Lee-Purvis, 36, became the first defendant in Philadelphia to be convicted by a jury for something posted on the Internet.
Following an illegal gun sale arrest in which his co-defendant became a cooperating witness, Purvis allegedly called the man a "rat" in Facebook posts and told friends where to find him.
Purvis was convicted of witness intimidation, witness retaliation and making terroristic threats and sentenced to five to 12 years in prison.
– Sept. 20, 2012. Joshua Scott Albert, 26, was arrested and charged with three counts each of criminal solicitation to commit murder, making terroristic threats and harassment for allegedly creating Facebook pages calling for the deaths of District Attorney Seth Williams, Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5 President John McNesby and Philadelphia police officers, in general.
Albert, who has been ordered to stand trial on the charges, is currently jailed in lieu of $100,000 bail and is next due in court on Feb. 7.
– Jan. 3, 2012. London Eley, 20, was convicted of solicitation to commit murder for allegedly posting on her Facebook page in the summer of 2011 that she would "pay somebody a stack" to kill her baby's father.
Prosecutors said 18-year-old Timothy Bynum accepted Eley's proposal and exchanged a series of Facebook messages discussing the victim.
Eley was sentenced to 6 to 23 months in jail and five years of probation, with an order to attend anger management and "stay off social media." Bynum was sentenced to 11 1/2 to 23 months in jail and eight years of intensive probation.