Laura Petrecca, USA TODAY
Even before the rape trial of two Steubenville, Ohio, teens, they had been convicted on social media. Text messages, photos and videos from a drunken party incriminated them.
Other teens at the party shared videos and comments about the victim on Facebook and Twitter, as well as via graphic text messages. Those postings spread beyond the high school students' circle, with individuals and groups, such as the hackitivist collective Anonymous, publicizing the night's events on the Internet.
"You were your own accuser, through the social media that you chose to publish your criminal conduct on," the victim's mother said Sunday to Trent Mays, 17, and Ma'Lik Richmond, 16, after they were judged "delinquent" - the juvenile version of being convicted.
The courtroom has become a digital domain, with text messages and social media posts increasingly used as evidence. The growing use of smartphones and the rise of Instagram, Twitter and Facebook have helped prosecutors and defense lawyers make their cases.
"It's the wave of the future," says Harvard Law School professor and criminal defense lawyer Alan Dershowitz. "It's going to change the way evidence is gathered in cases. It's already happening."
Prosecutors said Mays admitted in one text message that he penetrated the girl with his hand. In other messages, he asked friends to cover for him, prosecutors said.
During the trial, the prosecution also introduced a text message from the 16-year-old victim that said: "I wasn't being a slut. They were taking advantage of me."
The players might have eluded prosecution if the victim's plight had not stirred the ire of bloggers such as Alexandria Goddard, a former Steubenville resident, and other social media watchdogs, including the hackitivist collective Anonymous.
Gregg Housh, an Internet activist associated with Anonymous, said a handful of Anonymous members were among those who took the initiative to identify the players. Next, they tracked down certain players' Twitter postings and Facebook entries from around the time of the rape, Housh says.
Eventually The New York Times and other media began reporting much of what had been flushed out in social media.
"Anonymous got as much information as they could posted all over the Internet and questioned why these guys weren't being prosecuted for obvious rape," Housh says. "Everyone got mad. They developed a furious consensus, that's how hacktivism happens. Anonymous helped make news to the point where the prosecutor had to pay attention."
In another case, the New York Police Department used social media to investigate a drug gang.
"They boasted about drug dealing and retaliatory violence on YouTube and Facebook," New York Police Department Commissioner Ray Kelly said in a news release Friday outlining the indictment of 18 defendants.
"Every technology creates changes in the way the way the law operates," Dershowitz says, citing photography and voice recording as improving evidence gathering.
In addition to being introduced as evidence, social media can also be used to commit a crime.
On Monday, authorities arrested two eastern Ohio girls suspected of making social media threats against the rape victim in the Steubenville case. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said the girls posted threatening Facebook and Twitter comments on Sunday.
Separately, DeWine has said he will convene a grand jury next month to determine whether more people, including coaches, parents and other students, should face charges.
Text messages introduced at the trial suggested a coach was aware of what went on before charges were brought. The coach and school officials have declined to comment.
USA TODAY usually does not name minors charged in juvenile court. However, Mays and Richmond have been identified in open court, on the city of Steubenville's website about the case and in numerous news media reports.