Judge’s kids’ Facebook friends at issue in bid for a new trial
BY JON SEIDEL email@example.com December 13, 2011 9:06PM
Updated: January 15, 2012 8:19AM
JOLIET — Blogging lawyers and tweeting jurors are already under scrutiny as social media invades the country’s courtrooms.
Now, a Wilmington woman found guilty of battering a baby wants her conviction overturned partly because family members of her victim are Facebook “friends” with her judge’s children.
The argument could be taken to a Joliet courtroom today.
Kelly A. Klein and her attorney, Steven Becker, argue in court filings that Will County Judge Daniel Rozak should have recused himself before presiding over Klein’s bench trial and finding her guilty in June. They’ve filled her case file with print-outs of his son’s and daughters’ Facebook pages, and they claim the relationship between the Rozaks and the Basham family goes deeper than a simple social-media connection.
“It is now apparent that the Facebook friendships between the Rozaks and the Bashams are only the tip of the iceberg,” Becker wrote.
Rozak, meanwhile, argues his adult children left his home years ago.
“I no longer vet their ‘friends’ and do not utilize their ‘electronic social networking sites,’” Rozak wrote in an affidavit.
Police sought aggravated battery of a child charges against Klein in March 2008, seven months after prosecutors said a 7-month-old boy left her daycare needing hospital care.
Kimberly Basham, the boy’s mother, eventually filed a personal injury lawsuit against Klein and said her child had no sign of physical injury and couldn’t yet crawl in August 2007 when he arrived at the daycare Klein ran out of her home.
By day’s end, Basham claims, her son had a bruise on his head and scratches on his abdomen. Prosecutors said doctors found bleeding in his brain.
Klein pleaded not guilty and asked for a bench trial, leaving it to Rozak to rule on her innocence. He found her guilty in June.
Allegation of friendship
Klein fired her defense attorney three months later and hired Becker, who soon started asking for a new trial. He claimed Rozak has a “close, personal friendship” with the victim’s grandfather, trial witness Gary Basham.
Rozak said he doesn’t know Basham nor the “numerous Basham family members” who testified at Klein’s trial.
“If I have ever met or talked to Gary Basham, I have absolutely no recollection of it whatsoever,” Rozak wrote, “and, even after he has testified in my courtroom, I’m not so sure that I would recognize him if I saw him again.”
But Becker also pointed to the Facebook pages of Rozak’s children.
Will County prosecutors said those Facebook friendships are meaningless, “as there is nothing to indicate Judge Rozak would have any knowledge of who was on his daughters’ Facebook, or that he would care.”
However, Becker wrote he has learned one of Rozak’s daughters works with an aunt of Klein’s alleged victim. And he said Rozak’s children all went to school and graduated around the same time as the Basham children at Reed-Custer High School, where graduating classes range from 100 to 120 students.
Finally, Becker points out that the day after Rozak filed his affidavit, Rozak’s children began blocking access to their Facebook pages and removing the victim’s family from their “friends” lists.
‘Caution and fear’
Dennis Rendleman, a member of the Illinois Judicial Ethics Committee, said the facts surrounding the personal relationships should carry more weight than a simple Facebook connection.
Though he said judicial conduct on social media has yet to be addressed in Illinois, the national consensus so far has been one of “caution and fear.” No one knows how to proceed yet, he said, and the few opinions available come from people who don’t fully understand social media.
The Virginia State Bar disciplined an attorney this year for not putting proper advertising disclaimers on his blog, and a Florida judicial ethics committee said in 2009 that judges in that state shouldn’t be Facebook friends with attorneys who appear before them.
Ultimately, Rendleman said, the Facebook friend listing itself isn’t as meaningful as the facts of the case and whether, for example, the children of the two families discussed the case online.
“Facebook friends doesn’t mean anything any more than saying you’re both members of a country club or you both have the same library card,” Rendleman said. “It says you both have the same something, but it doesn’t tell you anything about what that means.”