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December 18, 2015

Social-media lessons from the Knott trial

As the jury continues deliberations, mulling the online impact of the high-profile 'gay-bashing' trial

12:05 P.M. UPDATE: A Philadelphia jury has found Kathryn Knott guilty of simple assault and conspiracy to commit simple assault against Zachary Hesse, one of two victims in the Sept. 11, 2014 beating in Center City. Knott was also found guilty of reckless endangerment against both Hesse and his partner, Andrew Haught. Read the developing story here.

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There’s an old journalistic saying that I think other people besides myself say from time to time.

It goes a little something like this: Sometimes, you find the story; sometimes, the story finds you; and sometimes, you’ll spend a couple afternoons at the courthouse waiting for a verdict that stubbornly doesn’t arrive in a conveniently timed manner.

That last part, that’s what I want to talk about on account of spending portions of the past couple afternoons at the Criminal Justice Center in Center City, awaiting a verdict in the Kathryn Knott trial that our John Kopp has dutifully covered since last week's opening arguments.

Since I suspect the verdict will arrive Friday when I’m out of town covering another story, it’s safe to reveal what this column would have likely been about: confrontation.

“Maybe we do live in a world where everything anybody ever says is fair game.” – Louis Busico, defense attorney 

Namely, that between supporters of a defendant on trial for allegedly being part of an assault seen by most as a gay bashing attack – two of Knott’s suburban pals have already pleaded guilty – and the media there to cover it.

With a gag order in place, and a 25-year-old woman’s freedom on the line, there haven’t been many run-ins (save for reporters telling me tales of a particular Knott supporter throwing his jacket over a TV camera and getting rammy with photographers outside the courthouse). Yet.

Each day, cameras have captured Knott et al walking out onto Filbert Street belying no trace of seeing the cameras following their every step while more likely than not seething inside about a Fourth Estate that they seemingly believe played up the case and caused them undue pain.

It’s hard not to notice the sneers when you walk into Courtroom 304 with a notebook, or the delicately placed middle finger on a very close relative’s right cheek (unwittingly?) held in the general direction of reporters. There’s an undeniably palpable anger in the room.

That’s a formula for utter combustion when the gag is removed from atop mouths. And that’s a formula for a story for which I wanted to be on the scene. Maybe, with Clausian intervention, the jury’ll do me the solid of holding out judgment until Monday or Tuesday. But, methinks the jury will doth protest too much at the prospect of returning after the weekend.

Instead, I’ll delve into some life lessons I learned during closing arguments from defense attorney Louis Busico and Assistant District Attorney Mike Barry in Judge Roxanne Covington’s courtroom.

Specifically, they centered on years-old Twitter posts that Ms. Knott sent into the Internet’s eternity, and even more specifically, how they’re being positioned by the prosecution and defense.

If you’ve been paying attention to the case, you know Ms. Knott – who nervously blinks a lot but rarely looks back into the gallery while sitting at the defense table – sent tweets about men kissing with hashtags “#gay” and “#ew,” how “Jazz flute is for little fairy boys” and how she closed a bad hair day tweet with “dyke.”

To Busico, they’re the taken-out-of-context musings of a college-aged woman whose social-media immaturity has been presented as unabashed homophobia (and when it is presented as such, there are a lot of heads shaking amongst supporters).

“Maybe we do live in a world where everything anybody ever says is fair game,” he said near the end of a 50-minute closing argument. “That makes absolutely no sense. [Those tweets] are not remotely close to the type of person she is.”

To Barry, however, they’re the crux of the whole case insofar as he said they show a defendant whose homophobic leanings allegedly pushed her to the point of “screaming f----t in [a victim’s] face,” egging friends on and more during a Sept. 11, 2014, Center City attack that made national waves.

“We didn’t put her in that chair. She put herself in that chair,” he said, then alluding to the St. Patrick’s Day night tweet reacting to gay men kissing.

“She’s out with friends, having a good time and comes across a couple of gay people. She saw a gay man fighting with her friend and had to get involved, just like that night,” Barry continued. “Slurs are so common to her that she types 'em up and sends 'em out.”

With no trace of those alleged yells or face slap presented on evidentiary surveillance footage, that dynamic must be under scrutiny among a jury that's asked 10 questions of clarification during the deliberation process. Depending upon what side is believed, it could speak to motive or trumped-up-edness. In other words, the accepted charges could hinge upon that.

Putting myself in the jury-box mindset, Busico's stance made perfect sense. As someone who has what can be conservatively deemed a, um, brash social-media presence, I tried to put myself at the defense table, fending off what could be used as evidence if I turned up as a suspect in a case against targets like, oh, Donald Trump, people who eat pickles and Elf on the Shelf enthusiasts.

My conclusion: It wouldn't go well if 140-character screeds were presented as emblematic of my true self. (I mean, c'mon, sarcasm is my lifeblood.) So, maybe, just maybe, Ms. Knott can't be defined by those tweets entered into evidence. 

Sure, I wouldn't jump in or stand by idly as someone boasting about their Elf on the Shelf game was mocked and savagely beaten on a Center City street, but an ADA could certainly use my typed words against me.

But then, Barry took the mic, and broke it down as such: The defendant had no compunction about using hate speech on social media, so that could very easily translate into getting riled up when out drinking with friends in Center City before confronting a pair of the people she holds in the lowest of regards.

She has "no sense of propriety whatsoever," he told the jury near the end of his 80-minute closing. "She saw a dirty f-----g f----t."

My conclusion from that: The man's got a point, but it's a point that the jury has to weigh against evidence and testimony from both the victims and those who came to court to support the defendant.

It's folly to predict what that jury will likely say later Friday, but it's not folly to suppose that when they announce whether Ms. Knott is guilty of aggravated assault, simple assault, conspiracy and recklessly endangering another person charges, emotions will run high both in and outside that courtroom.

And, of course, it'd be wise of that guy who allegedly threw a jacket atop a TV camera to avoid holding court on his thoughts about jury and media members for the nightly news record or Twitter. After all, as we've learned from this case, the public record never goes away, even when tweets are deleted.