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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

It's My Space. That's Why They Call It MySpace, Take 4: Supreme Court of Indiana Seemingly Errs in Deeming MySpace Evidence Admissible In Murder Appeal

I have written three previous posts on this blog (here, here, and here) about court rulings addressing the admissibility of evidence on parties' MySpace pages. The latest court to weigh in on the issue was the Supreme Court of Indiana in its opinion in Clark v. State. In my opinion, the Indiana Supremes, got it wrong.

In Clark, a jury found Ian J. Clark guilty of murdering a two year-old left in his care. You can get the full facts in the opinion of the Supreme Court of Indiana, but here are some of the basics:

Ian J. Clark was living...with his fiancée Matara Muchowicz and her daughter Samantha. Samantha typically stayed with a friend while Clark and Matara were at work, but Clark had been laid off at some point during the month and in an effort to save money Matara began leaving Samantha with Clark for the day.

When Matara arrived home on May 25th, around 2 p.m., she found Clark lying on the couch with Samantha on his chest, naked and blue. Matara approached the couch and noticed blood on the blanket that was covering up Clark. After being questioned about the blood, Clark sat up and then fell and stumbled into the coffee table, dropping Samantha on the ground. Clark told Matara that Samantha was breathing. Matara tried to wake Samantha, but she was cold. Samantha’s head was thrown back and she was gurgling. Matara took Samantha and went to call 911. Clark told Matara to put the phone down and that Samantha was "brain dead" and then lit a cigarette and turned on the television.

Matara dialed 911, but Clark grabbed the phone out of her hand. Clark told Matara there was nothing wrong with Samantha and that she was breathing. He kept telling Matara that Samantha was fine. Matara told Clark they needed to call an ambulance. Clark continued to try to prevent Matara from calling 911. Clark took the phone from Matara and tried to drag her away from the phone. When Matara managed to dial 911 and ask the operator for help, Clark struck Matara in the back of the head with his fist.

Matara managed to make a second call to 911....[Officers later arrived and] arrested Clark and transported him to the hospital with blood on his shirt. While waiting in an exam room with police, Clark told a detective that ― I will f. . .ing kick your ass. I will send the Hell’s Angels to kill you. F. . . it. It’s only a C felony. I can beat this.

[Samantha was leter declared dead]. Samantha suffered at least twenty separate injuries, more than one of which would be lethal, and she was still alive when she sustained many of them. An emergency room doctor described Samantha’s "fresh" injuries as the worst he had observed in twenty years. Neither one fall, nor multiple falls, nor multiple household accidents, could possibly have caused Samantha’s injuries. The official cause of death was by multiple blunt force injuries and the official manner of death was ruled a homicide.

Muchowicz had helped Clark create a MySpace Page, and the prosecution admitted evidence of this page at trial, such as Clark's own description of himself:

Society labels me as an outlaw and criminal and sees more and more everyday how many of the people, while growing up, and those who judge me, are dishonest and dishonorable. Note, in one aspect I’m glad to say I have helped you people in my past who have done something and achieved on the other hand, I’m sad to see so many people who have nowhere. To those people I say, if I can do it and get away. B. . . sh. . . . And with all my obstacles, why the f. . . can't you.

After he was convicted, Clark appealed, claiming, inter alia, that the evidence from his MySpace Page was impermissible character evidence. That appeal eventually reached the Supreme Court of Indiana, which disagreed, noting that Indiana Rule of Evidence 404(b) provides that "[e]vidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts is not admissible to prove the character of a person in order to show action in conformity therewith." The court found that this rule was not applicable to the evidence from Clark's MySpace Page because it "contained only statements about himself and in reference to himself" and was not evidence of "prior criminal acts."

Here's where I think that the court went wrong. Indiana Rule of Evidence 404(a) (read in conjunction with Indiana Rule of Evidence 405(a)) also precludes opinion and reputation evidence concerning a person's character. And this rule precludes the admission of even a defendant's own opinions concerning his own character. See, e.g., State v. Jalowiec, 744 N.E.2d 163 (Ohio 2001).

Now, the Supreme Court of Indiana seemed to be trying to argue that it could get around this issue by holding that Clark "made his character a central issue" in his trial, allowing the prosecution to respond in kind under the mercy rule contained in Indiana Rule of Evidence 404(a)(1). The problem with this holding is that I think that it is inaccurate. According to the court, Clark made his character a central issue by testifying "about his state of mind, suggesting his intent could only have been 'reckless' and not criminal."   

The problem with this argument is that such testimony is not character evidence. It is evidence about whether Clark was reckless at the time of the crime charged, not whether he was generally a reckless (or violent) person. Thus, Clark did not inject the issue of character into his trial, and the prosecution should have been precluded from presenting evidence from his MySpace Page at trial (Looking at the rest of the evidence in the case, though, I think that there was sufficient evidence to support a conviction even in the absence of this evidence).

-CM

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/evidenceprof/2009/10/myspace--httpwwwchicagotribunecomnewschi-ap-in-myspace-courtruli01759404story.html

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Comments

I had the misfortune to encounter this waste of flesh back in school in Fairbanks. He was a troublemaker who should have been prosecuted and put away 20 years ago. He contributed nothing but misery to society and the fact that he showed complete disrespect toward a judicial officer says a great deal about him. Look his name up on the Alaska Court System website and you will find a string of cases filed against him. He was nothing more than a cowardly sociopath who harassed and humiliated people who did not deserve to be treated that way. Strangely enough, he was voted 'Most likely to serve time' by his fellow classmates.

He clearly does not want to accept responsibility for what he did. Instead, he blames everyone else - the girl's mother, the police, the prosecution, the judge - but in the end, there is one person, and one person alone, who is culpable for this action: Ian Clark.

Kudos to the Indiana Supreme Court for their decision to uphold his conviction.

Posted by: bob | Oct 17, 2009 6:01:01 PM

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