Law enforcement’s announcement Wednesday that Mark Redwine is a person of interest in the death of his teenage son reignited social-media vigilantes who for three years have urged his arrest and, at times, his death.
“Guilt is written all over your face ... You can rot in hell Mark,” Susie Stone wrote in response to the news on the Facebook group “Dylan Redwine – The Journey to Justice.”
But the development in the case didn’t appease Facebook user Tina Christine McCoy Kim, who first became convinced of Mark Redwine’s guilt after watching a “Dr. Phil” episode in which his ex-wife Elaine Hall accused him of killing their son on air: Kim reacted by calling for Redwine’s immediate imprisonment, before saying, “This (expletive) needs to DIE!”
These posts are the latest example of the Internet’s capacity for extra-legal execution. Online, social-media users’ lust for Mark Redwine’s blood has far outpaced the workings of the justice system almost since the day that Dylan went missing while visiting his father near Durango during Thanksgiving break 2012.
Though Mark Redwine has not been charged with any crime relating to his son’s death, the social-media campaign against him has been so vicious “as to shock a normal person’s conscience,” Redwine’s lawyer Christian Hatfield said in an interview Thursday.
Last week, Hatfield told the court that sites like Facebook contain “threats of violence, death threats, vandalism and intimidation so extreme that Mr. Redwine is forced to live mainly on the road as a trucker.”
The vitriol has rendered “Mark Redwine nearly unable to work, to live in his home without fear, or engage in many of the normal daily activities of life,” Hatfield wrote in response to Elaine Hall’s wrongful death lawsuit.
Freedom of speech?
Indeed, by June of this year, if you Googled Mark Redwine’s name, the first result was “Calling Mark Redwine,” a Facebook group with 3,784 “likes” where users posted photos of 6th Judicial District Attorney Todd Risberg to shame law enforcement into more vigorously pursuing Mark Redwine.
Mostly, it featured hundreds of posts accusing Mark Redwine of killing his son in terms so disturbing that much of its content is unprintable.
The legality of such sites is unclear, and they are difficult to police.
In June, The Durango Herald asked Facebook whether the group violated policies forbidding bullying, harassment and threats. Facebook said the group did not violate its standards. Shortly after the Herald began inquiring about the group, “Calling Mark Redwine” went dark without explanation, as did many Facebook-hosted sites of a similar bent.
Hatfield said that Redwine, whose home, car and belongings investigators have searched repeatedly, would by now have been eliminated as a suspect were it not for the “media debacle.”
Policing despite publicity
Earlier this summer, La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith told the Herald’s editorial board that investigators were highly aware of online pitchforks aiming for Mark Redwine.
In a follow-up interview, Smith said public sentiment was not driving the investigation.
In a news release issued Wednesday, the Sheriff’s Office said it had designated Mark Redwine a person of interest “based on evidence collected, inconsistent statements made by Mark Redwine, and his behavior throughout the investigation.”
But unlike the term “suspect,” the phrase “person of interest” is legally meaningless, according to the Department of Justice.
Hatfield said its nebulousness constitutes “a real statement made by law enforcement (that) they don’t have a suspect,” he said.
He said the online furor directed at Mark Redwine has become the emotional, political and media lens through which everything to do with the case is refracted, including law enforcement’s investigation of Dylan’s death, citing the coroner’s reclassification of Dylan’s death as a homicide.
“How can the coroner do that without a body?” Hatfield asked.
Coroner Jann Smith did not return requests for comment Thursday.
Her predecessor, former La Plata County Coroner Dr. Carol Huser, said medical examiners don’t determine cause of death solely on autopsy and lab results, but consider the circumstances surrounding a death.
She said one reason a coroner might reclassify a means of death from undetermined to homicide is to force law enforcement to take it seriously; another might be to “put pressure on the guilty party.”
Huser emphasized that she could not speak about the specifics of Smith’s decision to reclassify Dylan’s death, because she has no firsthand knowledge of the case.
But, she said, it was obvious that police “don’t have sufficient evidence to prove that Redwine killed him, because if they did, he would be in jail.”
Conviction by social media
Murder trial by media isn’t new: Just ask O.J. Simpson, Jodi Arias, George Zimmerman and Amanda Knox – notorious criminal defendants convicted by large swathes of the cable-news watching public years before they ever got their day in court.
Professor Brian Burke, who teaches forensic psychology at Fort Lewis College, said as a media narrative, the Redwine case has archetypal qualities – including an acrimonious divorce and a child’s death – that make it easy for spectators to get invested in its outcome.
Burke said, psychologically, Redwine’s social-media persecutors are driven by anger at an unjust world.
As a culture, he said, we know that, “It’s not fair for a teenage boy to die like that. That’s a major injustice – and it’s unsettling to live in a world” where a crime like that goes unsolved. “It feels better to say, ‘Of course, Mark Redwine did it!’ It’s actually more comfortable psychologically,” he said.
But criminal defense attorney Hal Haddon, of the Denver-based firm Haddon Morgan and Foreman, said the Internet has given mob-mentality free rein, undermining the justice system’s cardinal tenet: the presumption of innocence.
Haddon, who has followed the Redwine case, said many of the media dynamics at play in the Redwine investigation are painfully reminiscent of what happened to his client, John Ramsey, the father of JonBenét Ramsey, a 6-year-old who was murdered at home in Boulder in 1996.
“Given the state of social media at the time, identical things happened to the Ramseys. Ramsey-haters started websites, email campaigns and blog postings – all demanding that the Ramsey parents be prosecuted, based primarily on hysterical theories that parents who put their kids in beauty contests had to be guilty of murder. That was the premise of the media firestorm that all happened between 1996 and 1999,” he said.
“Ultimately, they weren’t charged,” he said. “Then, in 2008, DNA evidence exonerated them. The district attorney publicly announced that. But by that time, they were ruined. John Ramsey lost his job, reputation and his child. He’s had trouble finding any employment since. To this day, the public overlooks the DNA evidence. I read a poll recently suggesting 60-70 percent of Americans still think the Ramseys killed their daughter. To this day, it’s an outrage.”
Denise Hess, a friend of Elaine Hall’s who set up the initial Facebook page “Find Missing Dylan Redwine” after Dylan first went missing in November 2012, said social media could be a powerful tool for locating missing children.
At first, she said, the site was dominated by people offering support and prayer through family and friends.
But, she said, beneath the tidal wave of support on social media lay a dark undercurrent.
“It’s not just directed at Mark,” she said, saying Elaine Hall, too, had been savaged by strangers online.
“I think there are people out there who thrive on other people’s pain and trauma,” she said.
But, she said, the vultures are nothing new.
“Is Mark’s life going to be ruined because of what those people say? It’s how he’s portrayed himself to the world. We didn’t make him go on ‘Dr. Phil’ and look like an idiot,” she said. “The presumption of innocence is a legal thing. It’s human nature for people to form an opinion – of their neighbors, the pope, the president.”
Others are disconcerted.
“It’s like a lynching,” said Naomi Beans, who learned firsthand the power of an Internet mob after the Herald published a letter in which she defended Mark Redwine.
Within hours of Beans’ letter being posted to “Calling Mark Redwine,” Durango residents active in the Facebook group were sharing whatever they could find about Beans with the aim of boycotting of her Hallmark store.
“Unluckily for them, I shut my business two years ago,” Beans said. “I just expressed an opinion in a newspaper. If I was Mark Redwine, I would sue them for libel.”