Social media proved helpful to police in their investigation into the death of ABC employee Jill Meagher.
But it could now jeopardise justice from being served, with police urging the public to stop posting comments about the man charged with her rape and murder.
Warnings of a trial by social media came as Facebook yesterday refused a police request to take down a page with prejudicial comments about the accused man.
Meanwhile, Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu has discussed asking the Victorian Law Reform Commission to review whether legislative change is needed to address social media’s impact on the jury system.
Victoria Police also issued a statement, referring to “the existence of a number of Facebook pages inciting hateful activity and offensive or threatening comments in relation to the accused in the Gillian (Jill) Meagher investigation”.
“Any pages or posts that appear to be in breach of Victorian contempt laws will be reported to the E-Crime Squad for investigation,” it said.
University of Ballarat Business School lecturer Elisa Backer said social media could a mixed blessing for cases such as the Jill Meagher case.
“On one hand, it can help to reach an audience not engaged in traditional media that may lead to useful information being included in the case,” she said.
“However, on the other hand, some public comments can potentially interfere with an accused person’s right to a fair trial.”
She said public comments discussing guilt or innocence, prior convictions or charges, and publications of photos were especially problematic in cases that may go before a jury, because it could interfere with judgement and influence witnesses with identification.
“People in cases such as this one are typically trying to express their emotion, which is done publicly rather than amongst friends in person,” she said.
“It is more problematic when public sites are set up with large numbers of followers and then people post photos or statements of assumed guilt or innocence before a trial.
“I imagine we will see some changes from the law Reform Commission because of what is happening with this case.”
Nevett Ford Managing Director Peter Wilson said people would naturally use social media to express sadness and grief over Jill’s tragic death and there was no harm in doing so.
Mr Wilson said there was a growing concern in trials that people were reading about the cases they were adjudicating outside of the courtroom.
“A person is judged to be innocent until proven guilty,” Mr Wilson said.
“The problem for a potential juror in this case is it’ll be pretty hard to find someone in Victoria who doesn’t know about this case.
“In the worst case scenario it may be that someone is incorrectly identified. If the person’s image has been plastered all over the place the jury might wrongly determine it’s the same person who is facing court that day.”
Mr Wilson said if the case went to trial, and was compromised, it would not be a good outcome for Australia’s legal system.