Sunday, June 7, 2009 | 2 a.m.
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Metro Police announced very little about the arrest of Tanner Rousseau, except that he was 18 and booked on murder charges in connection with a fatal stabbing in the Tropicana parking lot. But almost immediately, his friends told the world a lot more — online.
“I was there, I saw the whole thing. I know what happened and you guys don’t. The guy kept hitting him in his head after he was stabbed the first time and he still had Tanner by his hair,” someone wrote on the Sun’s Web site under the name “not guilty.”
Another commenter claimed to be one of Rousseau’s closest friends and wrote: “I gave him the legal 2 1/2 blade ... it was for protection ... and I’m glad I did ...”
Before the coroner confirmed the victim’s name — Gregory Dominique — for the media, people who knew Dominique were online too, lamenting his death and arguing with supporters of Rousseau.
“At least all you Tanner-loving people can visit him and talk to him, send him books to read in prison. I will never be able to see or hear from Greg again!”
The Sun posted three brief online stories about Rousseau’s arrest and the May 8 stabbing. These online blurbs quickly generated hundreds of comments from anonymous readers; people who said they were witnesses, relatives, friends or none of these things, just observers trying to dissect a crime from the comfort of their computers.
Online, groups that would have been unlikely to meet in person — friends of the accused and friends of the victim — all but collided. Their exchanges, just days after an incident we still don’t know much about, slowly painted a picture of the people involved and, maybe, of what happened that night in the Tropicana parking lot. Whether this is a triumph of citizen journalism, or a gift to attorneys ready to litigate the case, remains to be seen. What’s clear is that the Internet, and the immediacy of communication, has changed the landscape of crime and punishment.
Clark County Public Defender Phil Kohn is not representing Rousseau, but he has concerns about the online comments nonetheless: What happened on the Sun site happens on Web sites around the world and has implications for every case to come.
“You can say anything now with complete anonymity. You can be libelous as you want,” Kohn said. “And I don’t know where society is going with that.”
And you can be as libelous as you want, online. Under the Communications Decency Act, Web sites and Internet service providers have no duty to review or remove online comments made by third parties. In fact, there is almost an incentive not to review comments made online, because Web sites on which too much or selective editing is done can be seen as complicit in defamation.
Unlike the content of a physical newspaper, which is always subject to editorial review before it is printed, comments made online are instant and too vast to really police — though the Sun does require commenters agree to certain service terms before posting on the site. These terms prohibit comments that are “libelous, defamatory, obscene, harmful, vulgar, threatening, tortious, harassing, abusive, invasive of another’s privacy, hateful, racially or ethnically objectionable, or otherwise illegal material.”
Through Web comments, the online world learned early on that Rousseau is from Arlington, Wash., a “pathetic place to live. There is a lot of poverty ... and a heck of a lot of boredom. Vegas is one of those places kids in Arlington joke about running off to, to simply escape the doldrums that we find ourselves swept off to with nothing to do.”
We learned that Rousseau had recently turned 18 and was slight, about 130 pounds, his friends said. (The police report confirmed it: His birthday was March 17, just over a month before the stabbing, and Rousseau was 5-foot-7 and 132 pounds when booked.
We learned that a few weeks before he came to Vegas, Rousseau had been hit by a car in Washington and suffered a concussion. Online, Rousseau’s friends made much of this accident, claiming Rousseau wielded his knife only because Dominique began punching him in the head.
Dominque’s “fists were like weapons” to Rousseau because of his prior head injury, one commenter argued online, going on to post a definition of “second-impact syndrome” — a potentially deadly condition that occurs when someone who has a concussion receives a second blow shortly thereafter.
In short, a defense was being posted online. And though it appeared to be put together anonymously by committee, it echoed what detectives noted Rousseau told them during his interrogation: “Rousseau related (the car accident and concussion were) relevant because he informed detectives that while Dominique had a hold of his hair and was striking him in the head he feared for his well being and for that reason he pulled a folding knife from his pocket.”
When commenters brought up the race of the men, we were told that Dominique, 35, “was half-black, half-white so race has nothing to do with it.” We learned that he was “an easy going guy, until he was threatened.”
We also learned, bit by bit, but still not entirely, what is alleged to have happened. The police report offers a concise account: At 4 a.m. May 6, Rousseau and a friend, Brandon Carmack, came into contact with Dominique outside the Tropicana. Carmack said he agreed to buy drugs (what kind we don’t know because it hasn’t been publicly reported by police, though online commenters have suggested cocaine) from Dominique in exchange for $6 and a bit of marijuana. The transaction occurred and Carmack realized he had ended up with an empty envelope. Carmack said he then jumped on Dominique, starting a fight. Rousseau, in an attempt to assist his friend, kicked Dominique in the genitals. The fight was supposedly over when Dominique charged Rousseau and began hitting him in the head. Rousseau then stabbed Dominique two to three times before the teens fled.
About half an hour later, Rousseau walked up to a cop who was driving around the Tropicana looking for suspects and said “You got me” with his hands in the air, according to the police report. The officer told Rousseau to quit playing games. Rousseau again said he was the person police wanted and that he had stabbed someone, the police report notes.
Two days before Tanner’s statement to police would be reported in the newspaper, commenters on the Sun site were talking about it: “The cop didn’t even know that he did it. We had to tell him.”
When Rousseau was in Las Vegas Justice Court for his preliminary hearing on May 28, his attorney, James Dean Leavitt, suggested the stabbing was self-defense. That suggestion appears to have resonated with Justice of the Peace Tony Abbatangelo because he dropped Rousseau’s bail from $50,000 to $10,000. The teen made bail and went home to Washington but is due to appear before a District Court judge on Wednesday.
Rousseau’s attorney said he was unaware of the online postings until the Sun contacted him.
Picking jurors for high profile cases is hard enough when there’s just the news media to contend with, Kohn said. An army of online commenters creates the potential for all kinds of unchecked information to find its way into the courtroom.
“Friends and family writing (online) to justify the acts of someone they love are not subject to cross-examination. They are not subject to any rules or ethics,” Kohn said. “It’s a whole new world out there that none of us contemplated.”
Metro homicide detective Chris O’Brien, the lead investigator on the case, is aware of the postings and has read them. He would not say what homicide detectives might do with information gleaned online — only that Internet postings, or MySpace pages, do sometimes yield useful information for detectives.
Commenters on the Sun site knew this too: “You know LVMPD reads this and you have your name right there, and it’s super easy to find your myspace.”
Rousseau’s MySpace page was also super easy for commenters to find, to mine for personal information, anything that might reveal a bit of the teen’s character. They found photos of Rousseau goofing around with friends. Photos of him smiling through a bruised face after his car accident. And photos of the 18-year-old drinking. It was also super easy for commenters to research Washington state court records and discover that someone named Tanner Rousseau had been charged with possession of drug paraphernalia.
When one poster shared a link to what appeared to be Rousseau’s court records, other commenters questioned whether airing prior charges was fair or relevant to the immediate case. In response to this criticism, the poster wrote: “I just wanted to counter the overwhelming sentiment at the time that he was a goody-two shoes that was randomly robbed or attacked. Maybe I’ve gone a bit too far and I do apologize.”
Too late. The information is out.
Tropicana Las Vegas sits on the south-east corner of Tropicana Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard, an intersection which has the most adjacent hotel rooms in the world, also making it one of the most busy. The hotel has 1,658 rooms, three restaurants, a 62,011-square foot casino and a spa.