The three-word Facebook post that undid child sex offender
A THREE-word Facebook post has been used to convict a man of child sex offences, with the single post he made relied on by a jury to prove his guilt.
The man, known by the court pseudonym Colin Stevenson, was 24 when he engaged in a 10-month relationship with a girl who was at the time aged between 14 and 15.
Stevenson claimed he never knew the girl's age, believed she was at least 16, and denied ever being told otherwise.
But his social media history revealed a single comment he made on a post by the girl in which her sister had pointed out the girl was 15.
In response to that message, and others that followed, Stevenson wrote only "very well spoken".
An icon on the comment suggested it was three years old, meaning it was made around the time of the illicit relationship but police were unable to pinpoint precisely when it was made.
But further investigation by police found hovering a computer mouse over the icon revealed the exact date.
That date revealed Stevenson had commented on the post two months before his relationship with the complainant had ended.
Stevenson objected to the Facebook material being used as evidence at trial, but failed to have it excluded.
Ultimately the jury relied on the post to convict him of two charges of sexual penetration of a child under the age of 16.
He was acquitted of eight other charges he was alleged to have committed before making the Facebook comment.
The man appealed his conviction but the Supreme Court found there was no error by the trial judge in allowing the social media evidence to be used.
In a unanimous decision Justices Simon Whelan, Emilios Kyrou and Michael Croucher found the Facebook posts were able to be admitted under the rules of evidence.
They said the admissibility of the Facebook posts must have been critical to the guilty verdicts.
Legal experts have raised concerns about the finding, saying it relies too heavily on the accuracy of Facebook's software.
University of Melbourne law professor Jeremy Gans said the jury's verdicts clearly showed they were not convinced Stevenson knew the girl's age before the posts, but thought he did or should have afterwards.
Stevenson was ordered to complete a community correction order and placed on the sex offender register for 15 years.
"I'm a touch disturbed by someone being placed on the sex offender register for 15 years solely on the basis of presumed accuracy of Facebook's date/time function, without any expert evidence to the effect that Facebook's date/time function is dependable," Prof Gans said.
"I mean, I haven't noticed any problems with that function, but for all I know Facebook gets things like that wrong often enough that you shouldn't ever count on it?"