The Facebook Factor

Facebook, the popular Internet social networking site, is becoming an ethical consideration for city judges.

Consider Tuesday's hearing for Joshua Scott Albert, the 26-year-old unemployed blogger whose Facebook postings advocated the murder of Philadelphia police officers; Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams and John McNesby, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police.

Albert was held for trial on charges of criminal solicitation to commit murder, terroristic threats and harassment after a preliminary hearing before Municipal Court Judge Teresa Carr Deni.

But Albert’s Facebook activity was not the only person’s to come into question. As McNesby sat in the witness box waiting to testify, Deni suddenly asked the prosecutor, state Senior Deputy Attorney General John J. Flannery and defense lawyer Lloyd E. Long III to come over for a sidebar conference.

After a few minutes, Deni resumed court and announced that she and McNesby were “Facebook friends” and she had asked Flannery and Long if they wanted another judge because of the appearance of a conflict of interest. Both lawyers said they were fine with Deni continuing to preside.

Now, if this seems excessively cautious, Deni had reason to be. There was, so to speak, judicial precedent in Philadelphia.

Last year, the same issue arose in the case of state Rep. Cherelle L. Parker, the Mount Airy Democrat charged with driving under the influence after police stopped her on April 30, 2011, allegedly driving the wrong way on Haines Street in Germantown.

Williams disqualified his office from prosecuting because he was a Facebook friend of Parker’s. The state Attorney General’s office took over the prosecution.

After Municipal Court Judge Charles Hayden dismissed the charges against Parker, reporters learned that judge and legislator were Facebook friends and the state prosecutor asked Hayden to reconsider his ruling.

When Hayden refused, the state Attorney General’s Office appealed and in January Common Pleas Court Judge Paula Patrick reinstated all charges, ruling that Hayden “abused his discretion” by dismissing the case against Parker.

After Parker’s failed pretrial appeal to the state Superior Court, Parker’s trial is now set for Jan. 16 in Municipal Court.