A Leicester middle school music teacher who raped his 12-year-old student had his conviction affirmed by the Massachusetts Appeals Court today. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Gilman.
A Worcester Superior Court jury convicted David Gilman of aggravated child rape and three counts of indecent assault and battery on a child under the age of 14. The evidence at trial established the 40-year-old defendant taught the victim’s music class. They spent time together during two school field trips and became friends on Facebook. As the victim entered seventh grade, the defendant also served as her drama club director. Over time, the defendant and the victim began spending more time “chatting” with each other over Facebook. Eventually, they professed their love for one another and the defendant began graphically describing the types of sex acts he would like to perform on the victim. Their relationship became physical when the defendant pulled the victim out of a school dance, brought her to his classroom, and kissed her. The defendant later wrote to the victim on Facebook that he loved her but he worried about going to jail because he had already broken the law. Twice more before he was arrested, the defendant and the victim met covertly in a classroom. The defendant touched the victim’s breast and digitally raped her.
After learning of the allegations, Leicester police officers seized the defendant’s school-issued computers. State troopers who work for the department’s digital evidence and multimedia unit conducted a forensic examination of the computers and recovered thousands of Facebook chat logs, including many of the graphic sexual messages sent by the defendant to the victim. The victim testified at trial and identified the Facebook messages as having been written by the defendant. The defense at trial was that while the defendant had written the messages, he never touched the victim and was simply engaged in fantasy writing. Following his convictions, the defendant was sentenced to serve between 10 and 13 years in state prison.
On appeal, the defendant argued contents of the Facebook chats he shared with the victim should not have been admitted at his trial. The defense attorney had filed a motion in limine to prevent the messages’ admission, but the judge allowed them to be presented to the jury. The defendant’s argument was that the messages constituted his prior bad acts that should not have been shared with the jury, and the Commonwealth had not established he was the author of the messages. The Appeals Court rejected both arguments. While so-called prior bad acts cannot be admitted at a defendant’s trial to prove he has a bad character or a propensity to commit crime, they are admissible to establish a pattern of operation. The Court ruled the Facebook messages at issue were clearly relevant to prove the nature of the relationship between the defendant and the victim. The graphic content was probative to illustrate the manner in which the relationship developed (progressing from a student-teacher relationship to a friendship and ultimately to a sexual relationship). While the sexual messages were undoubtedly prejudicial toward the defendant, their probative value outweighed the prejudice. The Court also found that there was sufficient evidence the defendant had authored the messages that were shared with the jury. In addition to containing the defendant’s name and picture, the Facebook messages were recovered from the defendant’s password-protected computers and they contained facts that were known only to the defendant and the victim. Accordingly, it was reasonable to conclude the defendant had written the messages.
Massachusetts judges are continuing to figure out evidentiary issues involving social media messaging and the admissibility of evidence recovered from social media accounts. What should be clear to anyone using Facebook or any other Internet-based service is that it is nearly impossible to permanently delete content that has been posted on a social media account.