The worst tragedies we tend to associate with cyberbullying, or cyberstalking, involve suicides by the victims of the despicable behavior.
Cases have popped up since the beginning of the social media era. In 2006, 13-year-old Megan Meier hanged herself after being duped into thinking that a boy liked her, only to have him turn on her in their MySpace conversations, calling her “fat” and a “slut.” The “boy” ended up being a family a few doors down, along with some friends who managed the fake profile.
There was the case of 18-year-old Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, who had just come out as gay when his roommate rigged his room with a webcam and broadcasted a sexual encounter live on the internet. After writing “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry” on his Facebook wall, he plunged to his death in the Hudson River.
Then there was the 2014 case of a woman who encouraged her friend to commit suicide through text messages until one night, he finally did.
In 2013, at least 9 teenage suicides were linked to a Ask.fm, a social network popular with teenagers.
Rarely are these cases prosecuted under laws specifically meant to combat cyberbullying or cyberstalking, as laws struggle to catch up with Internet culture. Instead, in the case of Clementi, two students were prosecuted and convicted under “invasion of privacy” statutes. The woman who encouraged suicide by texting her friend was charged with involuntary manslaughter; the case is ongoing. In Meier’s case, the mother was convicted of three counts of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, but the charges were later thrown out by prosecutors after legal experts raised red flags about the legal precedent the case would set.
Last month, though, a potentially landmark cyberstalking case came to a head in federal courts, as the prosecutors gave three family members lifetime sentences relating to the death of two women. It was the first time defendants were convicted of “cyberstalking resulting in death,” a charge that had been on the books since 2006.
The case could have huge implications for how future cyber-related death cases are prosecuted, say experts.
There was one important wrinkle in the case, though. Contrary to what might be expected in a “cyberstalking resulting in death” case, the death of the two women did not come from suicide.
It came from murder.
Christine Belford, 39, and her friend Laura Mulford, 47, were shot to death in the lobby of a Wilmington, Delaware courthouse in 2013. The shooter was Belford’s ex-father in law.
In the three years leading to the double murder, Belford had been harassed online and offline by her ex-father in law, ex-mother in law, and ex-sister in law, at the direction of her ex-husband, according to prosecutors.
“I’m done playing Mr. Nice Guy,” David Matusiewicz wrote to his sister in a prison letter that set the chain of events in motion. Only twelve days earlier, he started a stint in federal prison for kidnapping his own children and taking them out of the country.
“I’m done playing Mr. Nice Guy.”- David Matusiewicz
The letter, cited in federal court documents, was an ominous clue of what was to come. In it, he directed his sister Amy Gonzalez to begin an online campaign against his ex-wife Belford, telling her to “begin making complaints anonymously” about Belford on websites, and to make their efforts were “well publicized.”
The narrative that he allegedly asked for his sister to spread in the campaign: that Belford sexually abused her and Matusiewicz’s eldest daughter—an allegation that the courts and the eldest daughter herself said was untrue and unfounded. His sister Gonzalez obliged the request, as did his mother and father Lenore and Thomas Matusiewicz, prosecutors say.
The family was relentless in their campaign, both online and offline, court records show. A website dedicated to bolstering the allegations of abuse was set up. Polygraph tests, which the family said corroborated their concerns, were mailed to at least 20 people. YouTube videos were uploaded. Fake social media accounts were set-up to monitor her personal life. Family friends were dispatched to conduct surveillance on Bedford’s home. Letters detailing the allegations were sent to the children’s schools, and then to Belford’s church.
After a bitter divorce years earlier, Matusiewicz had kidnapped the three children, taking them to a small village in Nicaragua for almost two years, ducking authorities.
While Matusiewicz was in prison for the stunt, Belford got his parental rights terminated. A few months after, she wrote to her Family Court attorney about the harassment, which was already underway:
David has nothing to lose at this point, he has lost everything. He may allow me to survive to suffer. I may survive long enough to watch the girls be harmed. I may even go missing. All of this could be possibilities [sic].
Things took a marked shift in late 2012, when Matusiewicz was let out of a halfway house. He went to live with his parents in Texas, and began petitioning the court to let him travel to New Jersey to visit family. On his third attempt, the court let him.
Even though he told the court he would be traveling alone, Matusiewicz, along with his mother and father, set out in two cars.
Before leaving, father Thomas left a note to his daughter inside his home, detailing what she should do with his property, and giving her funeral instructions, court records show. Included in the note: “HOPEFULLY WE CAN END THIS BS NOW — UP TO DAVE.”
A few days later, a few seconds after she walked into the lobby of a courthouse in Wilmington, Delaware, Thomas opened fire on Belford with a .45 caliber pistol, killing her instantly. He also killed her friend Laura Mulford, before getting into a shootout with Capitol Police, wounding two of them. He was hit once in the chest, before he shot himself in the head, ending it all.
The following day, Gonzalez wrote a $80 check to the Family Court of the State of Delaware, asking for custody of the children now that their mother was deceased. Four days later it arrived at the courthouse, records show. By that time, the whole family was already being investigated.
So how did murder turn into a potentially landmark case of cyberstalking? Why is it that, and not say, a conspiracy to commit murder, or a flat-out murder case?
Those are questions that Jeremy Ibrahim, attorney for Gonzalez, wants the court to answer. Last week, he issued a motion for the court to reconsider his client’s lifetime sentence, something he hasn’t done before “in 20 years of practice,” he told me. The court hasn’t yet responded, and in the meantime he is planning an appeal.
“In effect my client was punished for conspiracy to commit murder, but she was not charged with conspiracy to commit murder,” he said. “The jury was not asked to find that they intentionally committed acts to plan a murder.”
The three family members were convicted of various charges of conspiracy to commit interstate stalking, actual interstate stalking, and cyberstalking resulting in death. Gonzalez was only convicted of conspiracy to commit interstate stalking and cyberstalking resulting in death.
No one was charged with conspiracy to commit murder or murder charges, even as the Department of Justice’s own press release for the sentencing describes the case as a “murder conspiracy.”
Officially, no one was charged with murder. Yet even
press releases from the Department of Justice call the case a ‘murder
The intention of Gonzalez, Ibrahim’s client, is the prickliest point of the whole case, U.S. District Court Judge Gerald McHugh acknowledged throughout the trial. Even while handing down her life sentence, he noted that unlike her brother and mother who traveled across the country with Thomas, who pulled the trigger, Gonzalez had no “deliberate intent of murder,” and that he “anguished” over giving her such a harsh sentence.
Instead of considering her intent to see Belford die, the court asked the jury to determine “whether [Belford’s] death was a reasonably foreseeable result” of the campaign, “and whether her death could be expected to follow as a natural consequence” of her previous participation.
A “credible argument could be made” that the father acted on his own in killing his ex-daughter-in-law, the judge wrote, but still, her participation was “inextricably interwoven” in the leadup to the double murder, he said. She should have known a murder was bound to happen at some point or another, whether she was aware of specific plans or not, he basically reasoned.
The ruling sets a dangerous precedent when it comes to First Amendment rights, Ibrahim told me, especially when the violence comes from a third party.
“That a homicide did in fact occur only increased the penalty for the stalking; it was not the grounds for the conviction itself,” Mary Anne Franks, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law, who focuses on tech and digital law wrote me in an email, refuting Ibrahim’s claim.
The conviction, and the only intent that the court had to prove, was that Gonzalez intended to do what the statute defines as cyberstalking: using the internet as a means to make someone “reasonably fear” for their life, or for that of their loved ones, she argued.
“The law punishes the act of stalking,” she said, “which is separate from any actual physical injury that may befall the victim.” A conviction for cyberstalking resulting in death is not a finding of liability for homicide, even though a homicide had to have resulted from the cyberstalking, she said, speculating on the prosecution and the court’s reasoning for the convictions.
“It’s a very factually unusual case,” said Danielle Citron, a professor at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law, who focuses on digital law, and has “talked to over 100 victims of cyberstalking” in her research.
Depending how the appeals process plays out in court, she told me, this case could either serve as a way to raise awareness for cyberstalking cases, which are hardly ever prosecuted, or it might make bringing these cases toxic for prosecutors and law enforcement.
“The only thing I worry is that because the facts are so extreme, and because it sounds like there’s one part of the prosecution that is a really weak link, that unless [Gonzalez] specifically solicited violence, and unless it was defamatory [speech], it sounds like this defendant’s link to the cyberstalking is weak,” she said.
“When you press the law and you press it in a case that is an overreach, my fear is that there’s a backlash, and that prosecutors would be afraid to use the statute because the public thinks that it’s a bullshitty, unconstitutional statute,” she said.
“Which it’s not,” she added.
During the sentencing hearing for Gonzalez and her brother David Matusiewicz last month, nearly four dozen family and friends of the victims appeared in court, pressing for maximum sentences. Their mother, who is terminally ill, had already gotten her sentence at a bedside hearing at a Philadelphia hospital.
“The Matusiewiczes will never stop until they have my sisters,” Katherine Moffa, half-sister of the three Matusiewicz children at the center of the case, said in a plea that the judge issue the harshest sentence possible. “Please make them go away so we can get the justice we deserve.”
The judge obliged, to an apparent sign of relief from the witnesses.
Before her lifetime lifetime sentence came down, Gonzalez took to the stand, issuing an apology for the two women whom her father killed three years ago. “My heart goes out to all of [the victims],” she said. “I cry for them every day and pray for them every day.”
For their protection, the three Matusiewicz children have been isolated from their friends and family, including their half-sister, throughout the legislative process. Soon, they will be able to reunite with their loved ones, the head prosecutor noted at the sentencing.
“This is not a victimless crime by any means,” remarked the judge.