CNET reports on a conviction based in part on search query logs from Google that was upheld on appeal:
A physical search of Justin’s computer revealed that a few months before the murder, he had searched for terms including “trauma, cases, gunshot, right chest” and “Florida & divorce.” Prosecutors had also discovered that the defendant downloaded a suggestive Guns N’ Roses song called “Used to Love Her” and then deleted it a few weeks later, after his wife’s death.
The lyrics: “I used to love her, but I had to kill her / I had to put her / Six feet under / And I can still hear her complain.”
The jury convicted Justin and he was sentenced to life in prison. He appealed on grounds that the evidence was wholly circumstantial and insufficient for conviction. A Florida state appeals court upheld his conviction and sentence.
At first blush this may be surprising and prompt responses like: I’d better be careful what I search for. It also might make people think that there’s a first amendment problem lurking somewhere in here.
However the search queries were used as evidence of the husband’s mens rea — or guilty mind. It would be very similar to a third party (say a co-worker or associate of the husband) repeating in court a conversation that he was a part of in which the husband said things that were suggestive of a desire to kill his wife. That would constitute hearsay but would be allowed in under one of the numerous criminal hearsay exceptions.
Unless there’s eyewitness testimony or its equivalent (video) or DNA evidence, most criminal convictions rely on some degree of circumstantial evidence and require the jury to draw inferences of guilt or intent from that evidence.
Increasingly this sort of search query evidence is coming in to show intent or otherwise to support a finding of criminal behavior. Indeed, search query logs have been called “the database of intentions.” In this case that was also true — in a much more sinister way.