DES MOINES (AP) — The second-degree murder conviction of a northwest Iowa man was affirmed by the Iowa Supreme Court on Friday in a ruling that concluded jurors at his trial were not overwhelmingly influenced by Facebook rumors of a town riot if he wasn’t convicted.
The case involved two young men well known in their small hometown of Estherville and interested in the same woman, a fatal shooting in June 2015, a trial and the community upheaval voiced on social media that made its way to the jury.
Lee Christensen, who is now 22 and serving sentence of up to 50 years, was convicted in July 2016 of shooting Thomas Bortvit, a community college student who was 19 when he died.
Christensen didn’t deny at his trial that he was the shooter but claimed he acted out of “sudden, violent and irresistible passion resulting from serious provocation” and it was not planned or deliberate.
Court documents show the events surrounding Bortvit’s death were the subject of extensive discussion in the Estherville community, a city of about 6,000 people and many called for jury duty knew members of both families and had seen news coverage or social media postings about the shooting.
Of the 60 prospective jurors questioned by attorneys during jury selection, 24 were dismissed after admitting they couldn’t be fair.
A 12-member jury was selected, however, heard the case and deliberated for a day and a half.
They could have convicted Christensen of first-degree murder which carries a mandatory life sentence, second-degree murder or lesser crimes including voluntary manslaughter, which Christensen’s attorney sought.
The jury found him guilty of second-degree murder.
The appeal centers on what they may have heard about what was happening outside the courthouse.
Christensen sought a new trial claiming jury misconduct and bias because jurors had learned of a Facebook posting that indicated members of the community were saying they’d riot if he wasn’t convicted.
Jurors are instructed to avoid social media and discussion outside the courtroom when they’re hearing a case and deliberating. The Supreme Court concluded, however, that the jury wasn’t unduly influenced by the outside information and that Christensen failed to show a reasonable probability that the verdict would have been different if Facebook rumors had not reached the jury.
“Every reasonable juror knows that a wide variety of vacuous claims and statements may appear on social media without the slightest veracity,” the court said. “In addition, there was no objective support for the threat of a riot in the record except the vague hearsay report of a Facebook comment.”
The court’s ruling overturns an opinion of the Iowa Court of Appeals last year that concluded Christensen should get a new trial based on the jury’s exposure to the Facebook postings.
The Supreme Court said the conviction will stand and no new trial is justified.