Supreme Court backs A.J. Johnson's bid to see alleged victim's social media

The defense team for former star University of Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson and a teammate scored a legal victory Wednesday, winning  access to the text messages and social media of their accusers.

Former UT football players A.J. Johnson and Michael Williams shake hands as they leave a motions hearing in Knox County Criminal Court on Sept. 17.

The Tennessee Supreme Court shot down the state’s appeal of a legally groundbreaking ruling by a lower court in the rape case filed against Johnson and former teammate Michael Williams.

The high court’s decision means that ruling becomes the law of land in Tennessee and brings the law in line with society’s new age of communication via text messaging, web applications and social media.

Players: Social media could exonerate 

Johnson and Williams contend their accuser is lying and what she and her friends said via the Internet before and after the alleged November 2014 rape will help prove it. But the law didn’t address that kind of talk, and police didn’t preserve any of that Internet-based chatter. When attorneys for the two ex-players tried to get that information from the accuser and her friends via a subpoena, the state balked, saying the law didn’t allow it.

On paper, the state was correct. There was no mention of Internet-based communication in the law on defense subpoenas. But the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals said talk is talk, whether through traditional means of recorded statements, handwritten notes and testimony or today’s methods of text messages, Snapchats, tweets and Facebook posts and messages.

If police don’t bother to get all that Internet-based chatter, the court ruled, the defense has the right to go after it under the same laws at play for the traditional talk. That was legally groundbreaking in and of itself, opening the door for the accused statewide to seek such information when deemed material and relevant.

Knox County Criminal Court Judge Bob McGee speaks during a motions hearing for former University of Tennessee football players A.J. Johnson and Michael Williams on Sept. 17.

Court: Prosecutors don't represent victims

But the appellate court went one step further – firmly establishing that prosecutors do not serve as attorneys for alleged victims but represent the state, its citizens and the interests of justice. Prosecutors, the court ruled, have no more right to block a subpoena issued to an alleged victim than they do for one issued to an ordinary citizen.

The state Attorney General’s office had hoped to convince the state Supreme Court to strike down that ruling and, in so doing, stand up for “victims rights” by allowing prosecutors to block defense requests for social media and messaging history. The high court didn’t take the bait.

The justices offered no reason. They announced their decision in a one-sentence order denying the state’s appeal.

Stephen Ross Johnson

Attorneys Stephen Ross Johnson and Tom Dillard, who represent A.J. Johnson, lauded the high court’s decision.

“Mr. Johnson is presumed innocent, is entitled to a fair jury trial, and must have access to critical information to properly defend himself,” the pair said in a statement. That is what the Court of Criminal Criminal Appeals decided.”

David Eldridge

They and attorneys David Eldridge and Loretta Cravens, who represent Williams, had fought the state’s appeal.

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“Mr. Willams is not guilty of these charges and is presumed innocent,” Eldridge said Wednesday. “The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the age-old principle that in order for criminal trials to be fair, the defendant must be able to subpoena relevant information. We are very pleased the supreme court let the decision stand.”

Case now headed for trial

Johnson and Williams are accused in Knox County Criminal Court of raping a female UT athlete at Johnson's apartment during a party in November 2014. The pair deny the aggravated rape charges and say the encounter was consensual. To boost that claim, the defense pointed to text messages between Johnson and the accuser showing the pair had engaged in casual sex before the party.

The defense also noted the accuser and her best friend – a key state witness – got rid of their phones after police asked about text messages and social media chatter. Several witnesses told police there had been discussion about the allegations via Internet-based messaging, the defense argued, but the Knoxville Police Department failed to follow through with its warrant for that communication.

The Supreme Court’s decision Wednesday means the case now returns to Judge Bob McGee for further hearings and the setting of a new trial date.