A Philadelphia juror this weekend took to Reddit for an unfiltered, direct-to-the-public look inside a case on which he served. That was after he’d considered the tweets of the defendant, uncovered by Twitter users, and rebroadcast by local and national media. A Facebook post from her cousin was partially read into the record, and a detective tried to dispel other reports that a Twitter user solved the case.
The juror was one of 12 tasked with deciding the guilt or innocence of Kathryn Knott in a case that, thanks to the immediacy of our timelines and the eagerness of amateur sleuths desperate to help, the public had already decided — from investigation to prosecution to Knott’s firing to opinions about her sentencing — months before the actual criminal proceedings began.
Knott, 25, of Bucks County, was charged along with two of her friends for beating up a gay couple in Center City Philadelphia on Sept. 11, 2014. She also bore the brunt of the public outcry, after her anti-gay tweets were aired to the world after she was charged and that audience learned she was the daughter of a police chief. On Friday, that juror and 11 of his peers found Knott guilty of misdemeanor assault, among several other charges. She escaped more serious felony charges.
“It was fascinating to watch them get apprehended thanks to social media,” said Scott Wooledge, the man who would later help dig up Knott’s own tweets. “I think that in another time it would have been really easy for them to just disappear into the night.”
The day after the attack on Zachary Hesse and Andrew Haught near 16th and Chancellor streets, the media was already calling it a possible hate crime.
Hesse and Haught, 28 and 27 at the time, reported to police that a group of clean-cut twentysomethings approached them that night, and one member of the group asked Hesse: “Is that your fucking boyfriend?”
Hesse responded something to the effect of: “Yes, do you have a problem with that?” And all hell broke loose. Both men reported being called “fucking faggots,” and a beating. Hesse suffered two black eyes; Haught was hospitalized for days with two broken cheekbones and he had to have his jaw wired shut for eight weeks.
Days later, police released a surveillance video from the Republic Bank ATM on 16th Street that they said showed the group of friends walking away from the scene. At trial, some members of the group testified they were on their way to a bar. Haught would have been bleeding on the ground, or in an ambulance on the way to Hahnemann Hospital.
By Sept. 16, the video was circulating. Detective Ralph Domenic of Central Detectives testified that tips about the group’s identity started coming in minutes after the videos aired on television and online. That evening, Twitter user @GreggyBennett tweeted the surveillance photos, then tweeted out a photo of well over a dozen young adults sitting in what appeared to be a restaurant — he tweeted that a friend of a friend had sent it to him.
Then, a Twitter user with a bent for Philly sports who goes by the handle @FanSince09 retweeted Bennett, and his followers (many of whom are from Philly) responded that the photo was taken at La Viola restaurant, an Italian spot on 16th Street in Center City. @FanSince09 then used Facebook’s graph search function, and found that some members of the group had checked into the restaurant. He gathered up the names he could find and sent them to Philadelphia Police.
By 11 p.m., a reporter for 6ABC was reporting that lawyers for the group of friends in the Center City gay assault case had contacted police and were making arrangements to speak.
Journalist Melody Kramer pulled together the Twitter saga into a Storify that now has nearly half a million views. Praise started coming in for @FanSince09 and the national media had picked up the story by the next day claiming that Philadelphia social media sleuths had solved the case. @FanSince09, who retained his anonymity throughout, appeared on national TV and talked to several media outlets about receiving a reward for his work.
But during the trial, Domenic testified that @FanSince09 “did not solve” the case, adding “he put out a restaurant photo that included about a dozen people who weren’t involved.”
Philadelphia detective Joe Murray, who is active on Twitter and was fielding information from @FanSince09 and others that night, said the number of tips he gets via social media has increased since the case. He also contends it’s irrelevant whether Twitter technically solved the case or not.
“For every case where the detectives already have tips or the tip beats social media by an hour, who cares?” Murray said. “Does it really matter? People tried, and people were into it, and they were like, ‘these people aren’t going to get away with this.’ And that was awesome.”
Knott is charged… then her tweets are found
By Sept. 24, 13 days after the assault took place, three members of the group of about 15 had been charged with assault. Philip Williams, now 25, and Kevin Harrigan, now 27, both of Bucks County as well, later accepted plea deals in the case that kept them out of prison and saddled them both with probation and community service.
Knott elected to take a gamble and go to trial. But long before that, she was tried in the court of public opinion.
After being charged, social media users interested in the case from Philadelphia and around the country located a Twitter account that appeared to have belonged to Knott. And users started poring through her tweets and retweeting comments that were anti-gay. They also found tweets about immigrants, excessive drinking and seemingly using her father’s position as a small-town police chief to her advantage.
One tweet was a photo of an X-ray — Knott was a emergency room technician in Abington — and Knott was fired shortly after, for violating patient confidentiality and tweeting out a photo of an image of someone’s body.
Wooledge, of Brooklyn, who goes by @Clarknt67 on Twitter, started pulling together Knott’s tweets in a Storify titled “Meet #PhillyHateCrime defendant Kathryn Knott.” The post was picked up by everyone from Philly Mag to Gawker and now has more than a million views.
“I wanted to make sure that we saw both sides and she was not portrayed as a good Catholic school girl from the suburbs,” Wooledge said, adding: “Kathryn deserves a trial in the court separate from the trial she already received on social media, but I am OK with the way it turned out. I’m glad they were included.”
Assistant District Attorney Mike Barry, the central bureau chief, worked on this case since the beginning and was the lead prosecutor in the trial over the last two weeks against Knott. He said during that prosecutors had no idea the tweets existed before they charged Knott and didn’t become aware of them until the press picked them up.
Judge Roxanne Covington initially allowed prosecutors to bring four tweets into evidence in the case because they could be construed as anti-gay and are useful to prosecutors to show motivation. And Covington has used social media herself to take a stance on related issues. After the Supreme Court ruled in June to legalize gay marriage across the country, Covington changed her Facebook profile picture to include a rainbow overlay over her photo.
Prior to the trial, Covington ruled that she would not allow the use of tweets about drunkenness or using Knott’s father’s position with police, as they were tangential to the case. The four tweets read into evidence by the prosecution were as follows:
2. Jazz flute is for little fairy boys
3. this camo song is gay like all the other brad paisley songs
Several other tweets were later read into evidence after one of Knott’s character witnesses called her “law-abiding.” When cross-examining the witness, prosecutors brought up tweets about her father. They also read into evidence tweets about spring break and getting kicked out of a bar.
Knott took the stand in her own defense and attempted to add context to the tweets that drew the most outrage. She said she doesn’t like PDAs (public displays of affection) and was offended by two men who were making out, but it had nothing to do with the fact that they were gay — despite the “#gay #ew.”
She said the “little fairy boys” tweet was a quote from the Will Ferrell movie Anchorman. Knott added that using the word “gay” as an insult isn’t a big deal if you don’t say it to a gay person. And she got into a back-and-forth with Barry about the semantics of the word “dyke,” saying at first that it isn’t a hateful word, and adding that “what’s said there is not demeaning.”
And Knott’s self-defense of her tweets apparently didn’t sit well with the jury.
“It was just embarrassing because all of it was right in front of her,” juror Aristeo Duernas, a 33-year-old from Brewerytown, said after the trial. “She would have become a better character to me if she would have been like, ‘you know what, I messed up, I said those things, it was stupid.’ But like, she had this kind of air of invincibility.”
Another juror said afterwards that “it’s just horrific to watch her explain away this hate speech.”
“It’s just, it’s saddening,” Gina Cook, a 36-year-old from Roxborough, said. “And I hope that whatever sentence she receives, that she will have time to think about how hurtful words are.”
Even after the partial conviction was handed down Friday, Knott’s defense attorney Louis Busico, of Newtown, contended that the tweets were irrelevant to the case and that prosecutors were reaching in bringing them out at trial.
“Long before the Twitter history was there, we saw a person who clearly, to us, had an issue with these gay men…” he said. “The Twitter history just confirmed that for us.”
In the hands of the jury
The social media references didn’t stop when the jury was charged to deliberate.
After closing arguments wrapped up the jury was ready to start discussing the case, prosecutors brought up concern about a Facebook posting by Knott’s cousin as they were concerned it could have been seen as threatening to jurors. The judge disagreed, but some of the public posting was read into the record and attorneys agreed it was unlikely the jury had seen it.
The post, written by a man named Tim Perkins who claimed to be Knott’s LGBT cousin, pleaded to the jury to “please allow Kathryn to go home.” It appears the posting has since either been deleted or switched to private.
Then, after a verdict was rendered and everyone had gone home, Duernas (AKA juror No. 4) hopped onto Reddit under the name “nedthedragonslayer” and did an “Ask Me Anything” where he took questions from Redditors about what it was like in the jury room. He specifically singled out one “stupid” juror who seemed to be holding back others who wanted to convict Knott on more charges.
“We were all in tears when we handed the verdict to the court official,” he wrote, “because the large majority of us felt she deserved much much more.”