ATHENS, Ala. (WHNT) - This may be of particular interest to anyone who posts comments online. If you were to comment anonymously on an internet news story, should you expect to be able to remain anonymous? That question will be decided in a Limestone County courtroom. At issue are some comments posted on our news partner Al.com web site pertaining to a capital murder case. Now, prosecutors want to know who posted them.
It all stems from coverage of the Joel Moyers capital murder case, but why do prosecutors want to know who commented on it?
Limestone County Assistant District Attorney Matt Huggins says it has nothing to do with derogatory comments made about how the District Attorney's office has handled the Moyers case thus far. He told the court whoever posted those comments seems to have inside information about what happened both before and after the shooting. So prosecutors believe this could be a potential material witness to a homicide and they want to know who it is.
Among the news outlets that have covered the Moyers case is WHNT News 19's news partner, Al.com. An update they posted in December gathered a number of comments, some critical of the District Attorney's handling of the case. But one poster offered details of the crime that prosecutors say makes that person a material witness and they have subpoeaned Al.com wanting to know who it is.
An attorney for Al.com argued people should have a First Amendment right to post comments about public officials and remain anonymous. Prosecutors told the court the comments about the District Attorney's office are immaterial, but the poster may possess material evidence regarding the prosecution of this case and they want the chance to interview the person.
"The First Amendment does protect a person's ability to speak anonymously against public officials. And so there is some protection recognized in Supreme Court cases. But the government also does have a right to investigate capital murder crimes so obviously there's some balancing test the judge will have to go through," Al.com attorney Daniel Kaufmann told WHNT News 19.
Joel Moyers is charged with the September 29th shooting death of 26-year-old Brandon Hydrick. Moyers told investigators he fired a warning shot at the small pick-up truck Hydrick was a passenger in because he thought they were burglars. But that shot hit the truck, the bullet going through the cab and striking Hydrick in the back. He died at the scene.
We checked and it appears the comments on that particular page on Al.com have been taken down. District Attorney Brian Jones declined to speak on record about the matter Wednesday. Circuit Court Judge James Woodroof says there are several cases he wants to research before issuing a ruling.
REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK: Moyers, although charged with capital murder, is out of jail on bond. Originally charged with murder, Moyers learned from the Internet he had been indicted on an upgraded charge of capital murder and attempted suicide before he could be re-arrested. Bond was allowed after prosecutors announced they would not seek the death penalty.
While many of the court records pertaining to Moyers' case are filed online, including lists of potential witnesses who have or will be subpoenaed to testify, the subpoena that demands Al.com provide the identity of an anonymous poster on their website is not available. Also, Al.com's response to the subpoena is not available, however, a motion asking the court to file the response "under seal" is posted.