By system, I mean Myspace.com, the social-networking site that has added a whole new layer of communication and interconnection to modern society. Two months ago, Andy Kahan, the Houston Mayor's director of Crime-Victim Services, logged on to Myspace to hunt for villains. He struck gold: Myspace hosted profiles and blogs supposedly for serial killers Richard "Night Stalker" Ramirez and David "Son of Sam" Berkowitz, mass murderers Charles Manson and his female disciples Squeaky Fromme and Susan Atkins.
"I just figured 'where there's one, there's others - OK, let's see how many Texas inmates we find,'" Kahan explained.
He found at least 30 Texas death-row inmates with Myspace profiles, and with that, he decided to pull the train whistle and unload the media circus. He fed the list to the Houson FOX-owned station and next thing you know, a one-sided shock piece was smeared across the country proclaiming that America's children were at risk of seduction by Texas's vilest killers.
"For the life of me, as much as I'm a firm believer in the First Amendment and free speech, I think you've got to draw the line somewhere," Kahan told FOX Investigates reporter Carolyn Canville.
Once FOX took his bait, Kahan decided to act. He Myspace-messaged the ubiquitous "Tom," Myspace buddy-to-all, demanding that the company "disavow themselves from being a public forum for some of the most heinous, despicable, and diabolical killers of our time."
Kahan says the line should be drawn at death-row inmates. But Texas inmates don't have direct access to the internet. In actuality, he's pushing for Myspace to cut off the anti-death-penalty activists who are responsible for the pages.
Earlier this year, Myspace.com surpassed Google.com as the most visited site on the net, reflecting its expansion from a simple friend and dating site to the primary point of contact for almost everything: bands, films, political campaigns, local nightclubs, even the Marine Corps. There are just as many fan and spoof pages for every possible subject, from Nancy Pelosi to dill pickles. And indeed criminals.
The anti-death-penalty message is strongest when the individuals facing death are humanized for the public, says Danielle, who manages two Myspace pages for death-row inmates, and asked to remain anonymous to protect her employer. Danielle says the main reason she supports "Sarge" Cleve Foster's page is to spread the word about his innocence claim in the 2002 rape and murder of a 28-year-old woman.
"We're not fan clubs, we're not groupies," says Danielle, who lives near the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, which houses Texas's death row. "For `Sarge's` birthday, people were leaving 'Happy Birthday' `comments` for him, and I sent him those ... I prefer to look at it as an anti-death-penalty activist page."
While many inmates also have individual web pages, Myspace's popularity makes it a vital resource for directing traffic to the sites.
"If I've got a sister site on Myspace, people that may not have heard of the main domain will see it ... It's almost the same thing as if your website comes up in a search engine or not," says Jennie, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid harassment. She operates a Myspace page `Myspace.com/anarchyinchains` and a website `Anarchyinchains.com` for Texas death-row inmate Steven Woods to bring attention to the conditions on death row and last month's inmate hunger strike. "Our main visitors come from Myspace. They may be like, 'Oh I was just going through my friend's list and I happened to see this and it really touched me, and I never realized the death penalty was like this.'"
Kahan and FOX paint the pages almost as dating avenues, and the activists who run the pages do forward messages to the inmates and post prisoners' writings in their Myspace blogs. However, Danielle's page for Mark Stroman, who admits to killing a South Asian convenience-store clerk after September 11, is designed to help him get in touch with people who knew him before he was incarcerated. Jennie estimates she mails printouts from the profile to Woods as often as twice week.
"As much as people want to say it's hurting the victims, Myspace is also a bridge to the loved ones of these men, too," Jennie says, and that's how Woods's mother was able to reenter his life. "She was so hurt by his situation, but now she writes him all the time. It was a stepping stone to get back into his life."
Kahan has a history of persecuting anti-death-penalty activists in the name of "victim rights." In 1999, Kahan successfully lobbied the Texas legislature to pass the "Notoriety for Profit" law, banning inmates from selling personalized items for profit. He also spearheaded a national campaign to pressure eBay.com to ban "murderbilia" from its auction site, and his efforts earned him the Ronald Wilson Reagan Award from the national Office for Victims of Crime. It's all right and righteous on the surface: of course it's abhorrent when serial killers sell autographs or bits of hair for hundreds, even thousands, of dollars. It's immoral. But that's not how Kahan's used the law.
In 2005, Kahan attacked the Texas Moratorium Network's annual art exhibition of death-penalty-inspired artworks by professional artists and inmates. The Austin Chronicle described the event as "a must for anyone with strong feelings, mixed feelings, or even few feelings on the death penalty." Kahan emailed the organizer, Scott Cobb, several times inquiring whether they were selling art by inmates. The gallery was eventually investigated by Austin police for breaking the "Notoriety for Profit" law.
Gallery Lombardi did indeed sell a drawing of a cross by an inmate for $50 - to a nun. The money went to the Network, not the inmate.
Kahan's and FOX's current attack on Myspace isn't just frivolous, but fraught with distortion and disinformation. For example, Kahan says "very few" of these death-row-inmate pages identify themselves as such. This is patently false. Both Kahan and FOX claim Myspace is primarily for young people, and that's why hosting these pages is dangerous. But according to statistics released by the company's Vice President of Marketing, Jamie Kantrowitz, speaking in London in April, 78 percent of the 80 million Myspace users are between the ages of 18 and 40. Myspace's terms of agreement bar anyone under the age of 14 from joining.
As an additional precaution, many activists filter out minors.
"We have gone through and made sure that there is no one under the age 18 `on their buddy lists`," Danielle says. "The main people I have on my pages are Christians who are anti-death-penalty. I'm sure there are groupies out there, but if I know about them, I block them."
Following the media reports (AP jumped on it as well), activists have also begun setting the pages to "private" status to address Kahan's concerns. This status requires the site manager to approve users before they are able to view the full pages. Others, including Jennie, have edited the texts of the profiles to clarify that they're activist rather than personal.
Myspace's official response to Kahan and FOX's demands was "Unless you violate the terms of service or break the law, we don't step in the middle of free expression. There's a lot on our site we don't approve of in terms of taste or ideas, but it's not our role to be censors."
Kahan's not going to give up. It took two years to beat eBay, he said. He told FOX he'd consider lobbying for legislation.
That may not be necessary. FOX's parent company, News Corp., bought Myspace.com for $580 million in July 2005, and this week the company's chairman, Rupert Murdoch, gave in to pressure to cancel a two-part interview with O.J. Simpson to promote his kinda-confessional, If I Did It. Of course, in O.J.'s case, it wasn't news so much as it was promotion and profit, since he would've been interviewed by his publisher at ReganBooks, an imprint of FOX's sister publishing house, HarperCollins. Murdoch also cancelled the book's publication.