Under normal circumstances, a 2017 intimate partner violence case involving a 19-year-old and her then 21-year-old boyfriend had the evidence necessary to prove physical abuse. The woman, known by the pseudonym Krista in a recent case study, had taken selfies of injuries inflicted by her boyfriend in the past.
Law enforcement didn’t get involved until a fight broke out between the two at a party, and then turned violent. Officials took photos of Krista’s injuries then, too; one showed Krista with a swollen face and a cut on her bottom lip. Her boyfriend, known as Alex in the case study, was charged with two felony counts of strangulation and two misdemeanor counts of assault.
When the case went to trial in October 2017, the photos became a central piece of evidence. But other digital evidence — including call logs and social media posts — ended up being a big boon for the defendant. As Fanny Ramirez, an assistant professor in media law at Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication, wrote, the digital record ultimately fell short of being a “model” witness for Krista.
The reality is that the relationship between digital communication and intimate partner violence is nuanced.
“With digital communication, you have a couple’s entire relationship history,” Ramirez says. “There are a lot of interpersonal and relationship dynamics that aren’t always brought up in the criminal justice system that can hurt female victims especially.”
The issue of digital evidence has recently been gripping the nation, as the trial of 21-year-old Inyoung You, a former Boston College student, plays out. In a case that mirrors the 2017 trial of Michelle Carter — who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter after encouraging her boyfriend to kill himself — authorities said You drove her then 22-year-old boyfriend, Alexander Urtula, to suicide. Now, prosecutors are using the couple’s more than 75,000 text messages, at least 47,000 of which came from You, as evidence of the woman’s “unrelenting” abuse.
Cases such as You’s and Carter’s drum up media attention “in large part because of their sensationalism and also because they fit the classic misogynistic image of women as heartless, seductress vamps,” according to Kelly Weisberg, editor of the journal Domestic Violence Report and the author of the leading treatise on domestic violence, “Domestic Violence Law.” What’s more, she says, these occasional cases in which girlfriends convince boyfriends to commit suicide “detract from the far greater problem of the large number of female victims of male partner abuse who die by suicide.”
While there’s a dearth of research into how intimate partner violence factors into suicide, it’s clear that women are disproportionately affected by domestic violence. According to the latest National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, which was conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2015, about one in four women have experienced contact sexual violence, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner and reported an IPV-related impact during their lifetime, compared with one in 10 men. And nearly one in six U.S. women were victims of stalking at some point in their lifetime, compared with one in 17 men.
Digital technologies have only made intimate partner violence more complicated, according to experts. That not only includes digital communication, but also how abusers perpetuate forms of stalking and violence through various technologies, including apps, iCloud access and phone family plans.
That complication follows such cases to the courts. “There’s a large and urgent problem in general in how the courts sort out how they think of technology,” says Sarah St. Vincent, director of the Computer Security Clinic for Survivors of Intimate Partner Violence at Cornell Tech. “Courts often take a long time to settle on what they will accept, won’t they won’t accept and why. In intimate partner violence cases, that’s all the more urgent.”
In some cases, that’s a function of discrepancies in state laws. Weisberg recalls a 2009 case in Nebraska involving a woman who was asking for a domestic abuse protection order against her ex-husband. Evidence in the case included a string text messages in which the man sent her one letter at a time to spell out the word “behead.” While the woman testified that she was afraid that he was going to behead her and her children, the court “didn’t give it much weight,” Weisberg says. Ultimately, the court ruled the messages didn’t constitute “physical menace,” which was requisite in the state definition of abuse.
Ramirez says she was drawn to Krista’s 2017 case because she initially thought “the victim was really well-prepared” for court. Photographs are typically strong pieces of evidence in cases of domestic abuse, Ramirez says.
Instead, the woman’s digital communication with her boyfriend hurt her in trial — the defense seized on records of hundreds of calls from the woman to her boyfriend after the abuse, plus old Facebook posts. As Ramirez writes in her case study, “defense attorneys strategically used digital evidence to raise doubts about the complainant’s state of mind and behavior in the aftermath of the assault as well as to weaken her credibility as a witness.”
In the end, the man, who did not take the stand, was convicted of one assault charge misdemeanor, but was acquitted on the two felony strangulation charges and the other assault charge.
Even as some technologies, including text and call logs, provide promise in terms of providing new evidence, they can be used both for and against victims, according to Kiersten Stewart, public policy director at Futures Without Violence, a nonprofit organization aimed at ending domestic and sexual violence.
“The more things change, the more they stay the same,” she says, referencing Polaroid cameras and rape kits — technologies that, when first introduced by law enforcement, were seen as tools to better document abuse. “With all of these things we thought, oh, this is finally the proof that women need,” Stewart says. “Yes, in some instances. But we now realize you can even have DNA and people are still going to try to have women justify their case.”
In Krista’s case, the jury seemed not to understand how some of the technology was being used, according to Ramirez. For example, the woman testified that the couple talked a lot over Snapchat — but there was no way to back that up in court, given that Snapchat messages disappear after being opened.
The issue goes beyond understanding technology, too, says Ramirez: It’s about educating people on how intimate partner abuse can be borne out. In Krista’s case, voice mails that showed her pleading with her abuser and attempting to reconcile were indicative of how some IPV victims struggle to reconcile their abusive relationships.
“There needs to be bigger awareness of all the personal dynamics that are involved in the decisions people make — communicating via Snapchat or why women stay in abusive relationships or why they stay in touch with someone who was hitting them,” Ramirez says. In the cases of juries in particular, she says, “it can be hard for people to understand how difficult it can be to break away from an abuser.”
Stewart agrees: The issue comes down to education and informing the public about the prevalence of domestic violence. “I think a lot of people think we fixed this already, and we haven’t,” she says.
There have been efforts at increasing visibility around the issue; for example, Monday marks the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, which brings attention to intimate partner violence, sexual violence and harassment and other issues. But Stewart says that not enough is being done — particularly among young people, for which these forms of digital communication are all the more ubiquitous.
“We need to continue, on a large scale, education and communication of the prevalence of domestic violence,” she says. “We take more of a public health approach, which is how do we prevent the violence? How do we change the social norms?”