Convict Web Sites Can Devastate Victims

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Last week, a judge denied a motion by Steve Peace, 43, an ex-Texas oil worker, for a new trial in a murder case. The convict’s Web site, Www.freestevepeace.com and “Unjustly accused. Unjustly convicted” assertion is an example of how new technology can provide an international soap box for would-be criminal justice reformers, says the Houston Chronicle.

Hundreds of Web pages, many featuring men on Texas’ death row, crowd cyberspace with claims of innocence. The Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty alone has provided free Internet sites to more than 500 condemned prisoners. The persuasive power of such Internet postings can be formidable, said University of Houston communications professor Garth Jowett. “It has created the ability to communicate on a highly intimate level,” he said. “It gives people the impression that a message has been specifically tailored to them.” If accepted uncritically, he warned, such messages can “become incredible weapons, dangerous loose cannons” exploited by propagandists.

Andy Kahan, the mayor’s victims’ rights advocate, believes that is what happens as inmate advocates proselytize via computer. “They use the Internet to promote their causes, usually with distortions,” Kahan said. “There’s little by way of checks and balances. You never see a correction or a disclaimer telling you to feel free to check out the facts. It’s made to seem that this is what happened. This is the truth.”

Kahan also said that the Web sites can be emotionally devastating for crime victim’s families. “They feel like they’ve been gutted all over again by the system,” he said.

In Houston, death penalty opponent Ward Larkin, a computer industry worker, began offering inmates free Web sites in 1995 after visiting death row. “It was my choice to post their information,” he said, “and I did so only after I had researched their cases thoroughly. … I didn’t anticipate changing anyone’s mind, I just wanted to allow them to inform themselves.”

Link: http://www.chron.com/cs/CDA/ssistory.mpl/front/2588224

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