(TNS) -- UTICA, N.Y. — Millions of people use social media to keep in contact with loved ones and keep them updated on changes in their lives.
When those same people use sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to discuss crimes they've committed — or, in rare cases, stream them live — it can be a boon and a headache for law enforcement.
Oneida County District Attorney Scott McNamara said local law enforcement is lucky that it hasn't seen any cases similar to Sunday's killing of 74-year-old Robert Godwin Sr. by Steve Stephens in Cleveland, which was recorded and posted to Facebook. But McNamara noted that social media is "definitely" part of the office's investigations. In the Cleveland case, Stephens killed himself Tuesday after a car chase with Pennsylvania authorities.
In cases involving illegal gun possession, for example, investigators have come across Facebook photos of defendants posing with the weapon in question a "surprising" amount of times, he said. Additionally, McNamara said a defendant's own words concerning alleged crimes can be an advantage to prosecutors in court or could be potentially used to exonerate defendants.
"It's very, very valuable," McNamara said. "Typically what happens after someone is arrested is that they try to come up with a story or a version of facts that's beneficial to them. What we try to show is that what they claimed took place actually didn't. Historical Facebook posts are an advantage."
In one example of a local case that heavily featured social media, a 41-year-old Ilion man faced state and federal charges last year after he posed as a teenager online in order to solicit nude photos from his 14-year-old daughter. He eventually was sentenced to 26 years in state prison.
The Observer-Dispatch is not naming the father to protect the identity of the victim. Herkimer County District Attorney Jeff Carpenter could not be reached for comment on the case.
As part of court proceedings, the father admitted to creating an online persona of a 16-year-old from Watertown in order to start a relationship with the girl and pressure her into sending compromising photos. Eventually, his conduct escalated to sexual assault.
Evidence used by law enforcement included pages of online conversations between the victim and her father as well as the photos he pressured her into sending.
But social media isn't always an advantage to law enforcement, McNamara said.
The department has run into situations where a victim — who was previously unaware of the identity of the perpetrator — will track down the suspect on Facebook and inform law enforcement of their find. McNamara said that adds a "whole new level of complications" to eyewitness identification procedures, given that police aren't involved and it could be questioned by the defense in court.
"It's an interesting change we never had to deal with," he said.
©2017 Observer-Dispatch, Utica, N.Y. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.