Police search America Online files for evidence in murder investigation
VIRGINIA–Fairfax County police obtained a criminal search warrant and performed a search of America Online’s electronic records in late January in connection with a New Jersey homicide investigation.
The search warrant authorized police to read and copy electronic mail from “a handful” of the computer service’s members’ accounts, according to Pam McGraw, spokesperson for America Online. The confiscated e-mail was turned over to law enforcement authorities in New Jersey.
In early January, George Hemenway lured Jesse Unger into his home in East Windsor, N.J. and shot him three times, according to police. A 15-year-old boy witnessed the shooting and Hemenway, who was arrested, gave a statement about the killing and his attempt at hiding the body, the Washington Post reported.
Unger and Hemenway were acquainted with each other through online chat groups and e-mail, according to police. The e-mail search was intended to uncover possible motives for the killing, a New Jersey police officer told the Post.
McGraw said America Online does not keep records from its chat rooms, but it does keep records of private e-mail for five days before they are purged. The company’s policy is to cooperate fully under any court order, she said.
Although America Online had never before been the subject of a police search, McGraw said the company has complied with a previous Federal Bureau of Investigation request to locate members’ electronic files suspected of containing child pornography.
“Where we can be a good citizen and assist and help the police, we will,” McGraw said. “Here an AOL member was a victim and an AOL member was a [suspect].”
America Online does not consider itself a “publisher” of the information carried by its service, McGraw said. “It’s a new medium that isn’t really comparable to anything,” she said. “A lot of content that’s online is created by the [America Online] members themselves.”
In October, America Online said it fully complied with a civil subpoena issued in Cook County Circuit Court in Illinois for a subscriber’s real name, address, credit card and checking information. The information was sought by a Caribbean resort that intended to sue the subscriber for libel for her online posts.