Acquittal by Text Message?

Okay you legal beagles, pop quiz time! Self-defense is notoriously fuzzy in the domestic violence context. Skepticism of spousal self-defense spans back centuries, and that skepticism was actually codified until as recently as 1993 (when Oklahoma and North Carolina became the last states to eliminate the “marital bed” exemptions to rape laws). In a recent Tennessee case involving alleged domestic violence and self-defense, Wife was indicted for the first degree murder of Husband. The 24 hours before the shooting were interesting in that they were somewhat narrated by a series of text messages between Wife and the couple’s adult Daughter (who lived elsewhere). Let’s take a peep at those texts, shall we? And they went a little something like this (Hit It!):

  • Day 1 Text Messages from Wife to Daughter…
    • 0930: Please come to the apartment.
    • 1030: The police just left.
    • 1045: You have got to get your stuff. Dad is losing it. [Then Daughter came to parents’ house, exchanged a distant salutatory nod w/Dad who was working outside, and chatted briefly w/Wife; otherwise all seemed okay, Daughter left.]
    • 21:15: Dad and I are fine. Please don’t worry about anything … It’s back to normal for the night. I’m working tomorrow and you got the items out of the apartment that he likes to threaten or break. He moved on to threatening me now … ha. I think he is going to bed and I am tired too. Love you lots.
  • Day 2 Text Messages from Wife to Daughter…
    • 0900: Please call Nana, your dad has attacked me again.
    • [Then Daughter came back to the house and found that Wife had shot Husband dead.]

Wife stands trial and claims self-defense. The only proximate “witness” is the text messages. Let the games begin.

Now, of course there were lots of other issues that weighed for/against Wife’s self-defense claim (including testimony from Husband’s mom that Wife was manipulative and violently jealous). But for now, I’m looking at the texts in particular. In this day and age, we are recorded more than ever, and usually with our explicit or tacit consent (or even by our own participation or at our behest). Even the biggest privacy advocates who claim to be “off the grid” still consent to a host of invasions every time they run a Google search. But as people get more tech savvy, mass communication (and mass documentation) can be both a sword and a shield (hey, kinda like guns!). It’s an interesting area of law and social policy that the courts are only just now starting to tackle.

In the Wife’s case, how do her text messages help her self-defense claim? How are they problematic? What can we learn about digital messaging, social media, and otherwise recorded conversation? And finally, does Wife go free? Stay tuned for more soon…

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