Judge, DA, and defense assail social media’s role in LeeAnn Fletcher case

By on September 2, 2023

District Attorney Jeff Cruden says the case “underscores the dangers of social media.”

In a Sept. 1 release issued a day after a plea deal was reached in the murder trial of John “Jay” Tolson, District 1 District Attorney Jeff Cruden stated that “this was a difficult case from the very beginning,” noting that first responders found the victim, LeeAnn Fletcher, “unresponsive without any obvious signs of external trauma.”

Further down in the release, Cruden minced no words in assailing the role of social media in the high-profile case, which began with the July 2020 death of Fletcher and a little more than three years later with the agreement for Tolson to plead to voluntary manslaughter.

“This case to a large degree underscores the dangers of social media,” the district attorney declared. “People that never attended a day of court, never looked at one piece of evidence and never read one witness statement, were nonetheless convinced of the defendant’s guilt. With any perceived delay or any mention of anything less than the death penalty, they declared the system broken. The system, while not perfect, is far from broken.”

There is no denying that social media played a significant role in the events that unfolded after Fletcher’s death. Some of her relatives and friends, concerned about the lack of an initial arrest in the case (Tolson was arrested in October 2020) and critical of law enforcement efforts, hired their own investigator and launched an aggressive social media campaign that spawned a movement.

There was a July 28, 2020 #justiceforleeann walk that ended up at the Kitty Hawk Police Station and was captured live on Facebook. The next month, Shena Twitty, a director of the nonprofit Dare Minority Coalition and a former school classmate of Fletcher, posted an item on the coalition’s Facebook page announcing it was selling #justiceforLeeAnn bracelets.

At the same time, Fletcher’s cousin Trisha Cahoon kept up a steady drumbeat of attention to the case on her Facebook page. On Aug. 19, 2020, for example, she posted a 25-minute video that included the 911 call and a tour of Fletcher’s home with Cahoon pointing to blood spots along the way.

In the days after Fletcher’s death, the social media activity and conversation prompted statements from both the Kitty Hawk Police and the district attorney’s office acknowledging the high level of community interest in the case and asking for patience.

Once Tolson’s trial began on Aug. 28, that social media campaign became a topic in the courtroom.

At one point during the trial, Jennifer Wells, a public defender representing Tolson, asserted that a “lot of fake information was spread” about the case. She also charged that the social media effort “muddied the waters” for Kitty Hawk and NC State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) investigators working the case.

But more noteworthy were the remarks of Superior Court Judge Jeff Foster after the plea agreement was completed on Aug. 31. Clearly concerned, he asked the prosecutors about a #justiceforLeeAnn social media posting that was made the night before. Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Bland responded that the post was taken down shortly after publication.

Discussing that post as well as comments in the courtroom ignoring his warning not to engage in advocacy while the trial was ongoing, Foster declared that “I’m incredibly disappointed, after the discussions we had…that these things still happened.” He also claimed that they created “the risk of a mistrial.”

A day later, Cruden basically echoed those sentiments with his criticism of what he characterized as a rush to judgment in the case and a warning about the “dangers of social media.”

SEE ALSO: Tolson takes voluntary manslaughter plea deal in death of LeeAnn Fletcher



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  • surf123

    Do not blame social media for your shortcomings in being able to deliver a guilty verdict with an appropriate sentence. Tolson has managed to skate with only around 5 years in person for murdering someone.

    Saturday, Sep 2 @ 3:58 pm
  • kdh backseat reviewer

    Unfortunately, this is the world we now live in.

    Saturday, Sep 2 @ 4:18 pm
  • walter rand

    I assume that the danger of the social media involvement was that the jury pool would be tainted, but no one in the article actually said that was the problem. By “tainted” I mean that someone on the jury or who might wind up on the jury would read the social media content and make up his or her mind about guilt or innocence based on social media content instead of on evidence presented at trial. If that was the problem, then why didn’t anyone in the article say so? If the problem was something else, what was that problem?

    Saturday, Sep 2 @ 4:28 pm
  • obx ron

    If we were all being truthful, it has become evident in many examples that a more accurate name for the new form of electronic communication has become ANTI social media.

    Saturday, Sep 2 @ 6:43 pm
  • Travis

    Maybe I’m misremembering, but was it not the case that Tolson called 911 and said Fletcher had fallen? And nobody initially thought any different until the social media ruckus started. In other words, it would have all just been chalked up to an accident if Cahoon and others hadn’t started lighting fires under (rhymes with glasses).

    After the ball got rolling maybe the social media tempest should have died down a little. But if not for that initial push, well, I think there would have never been a day in court.

    Saturday, Sep 2 @ 7:08 pm
  • Drajon

    Once upon a time, some stupid ass politicians decided that some people could not get a fair trial because of local gossip. So the taxpayers had to foot the bill to have trials moved halfway across the state. Next thing you know, they will be saying that people can’t get fair trials because of social media, so the trials have to be moved to China.

    Saturday, Sep 2 @ 8:06 pm
  • MadAsHeck

    The legal system is geared to protect the criminals not victims. How a lawyer can sleep after this is beyond belief.

    Sunday, Sep 3 @ 6:54 am
  • Jay

    Ditto what surf123 wrote. When the prosecution puts witnesses on the stand that give conflicting testimony that tells me they did a sloppy job or maybe it was deliberate to give the defense ammunition for a not guilty verdict. One of the rules for attorneys is never ask a question in the court room or put a witness on the stand you don’t already know what is going to be said in advance.

    Sunday, Sep 3 @ 7:17 am
  • BKT

    Social Media
    The devils hand at work.
    To many platforms for people to spew anything from false to true.
    Most people can’t handle the platform it allows

    Sunday, Sep 3 @ 11:42 am
  • Jeff Walker

    It’s funny how quickly so many people including in this comment section will claim some grand conspiracy to let criminals go free when the DA and the judge are literally telling you that you the peanut gallery nearly tanked the case.

    Sunday, Sep 3 @ 12:10 pm
  • Marc LeBlanc

    It appears axiomatic that any judge, any ruling, any verdict by jury or judge, or other disposition is suspect.

    The Trump contretemps have fueled such suspicions, (yes OK Hunter too) but reflect a predisposition going back to OJ and Rodney King, to name just two generative proceedings.

    Echoing the prosecutor in this case, this predisposition persists despite that almost no complainer has any direct exposure to the evidence (and almost no one reads legal filings).

    Why not start from “giving the benefit of doubt (reasonable or otherwise).

    Sunday, Sep 3 @ 2:51 pm
  • Crystal

    If it wasn’t for her friends and family, this man would never have spent one day in jail. Pretty sad that she had to pay a private detective to come do the job that the police couldn’t do!! I have no Faith in Dare County? I hope I never have to be the victim of a crime in this county.

    Sunday, Sep 3 @ 5:09 pm
  • ac hollowell

    i calling out the voice now i read this article in the voice we got the judge`s DA`s and the dog killer police department`s view`s on this now you now you need to go and interview the family and friend`s for there side of the story i be waiting to see if you do this or if you are one sided like most news media this day in time

    Sunday, Sep 3 @ 7:11 pm
  • Dan

    The feckless justice system merely a giving the “peasants” a lawyer-esque way of saying: “The dog ate my homework.” How much homework was really ever done?

    Monday, Sep 4 @ 8:06 am
  • Wade

    Social media certainly complicated matter but If I recall Tolson was arrested at a rehab facility in Maine, he wasn’t on the run. Fletcher died from injuries that were complicated by hepatic cirrhosis and other underlying issues? That speaks volumes of the deceased and defendant’s lifestyle. None of us were there. A very tragic event occurred and neither parties were aware of the severity of the situation when it happened because of their inebriated state. Let’s face it sometimes bad things happen when people are intoxicated. A second degree murder charge was a big stretch to prove and it was probably doubtful if there was enough proof to show malice. Pleading down to a Voluntary manslaughter charge was the best outcome the DA was going to get. I’m glad they didn’t drag the victim through the mud. I feel sad for both victim and her family and Mr. Tolson.

    Monday, Sep 4 @ 2:37 pm
  • Alrighty

    Yeah Wade, a thoughtful rational reply

    Monday, Sep 4 @ 9:59 pm
  • SocialMediaWorked

    Shame on Cruden! Has he read the SECOND AMENDMENT? Does he need a Civics Lesson? How dare you belittle the family, especially at this difficult time. Freedom of Speech, especially now, should be encouraged. Are you sure you are a Republican DA Cruden or Republican In Name Only? You were a Democrat back in 2014 before moving to Dare. Did you change affiliation just to get elected?
    If it wasn’t for Social Media LeeAnn and family would have gotten a second look. The KHPD was dismissive, rude, and had little to NO compassion for the family….NOT TO MENTION UNPROFESSIONAL, leaning towards negligent.
    DA Womble said that he would do nothing until the ME report came in even if Jesus Christ himself came down to earth. Nice.
    No person or family deserves this dismissive attitude.

    Tuesday, Sep 5 @ 12:25 pm
  • TLC

    My issue is with the state and federal funds that were used to investigate this crime. These are our tax dollars. So when a criminal case is settled with a plea bargain, who pays for the investigation? is it us as tax payers, or the accused who got the deal? I’m not satisfied that my tax dollars are allowing a criminal to plea and not accept responsibility for restitution for the investigation cost. Not to mention that they minimized a criminal act.

    Tuesday, Sep 5 @ 8:01 pm
  • Get Real

    Dear TLC,
    Are you familiar with the court system at all? Most cases end in a plea deal. No one gets a refund on anything! It’s the American Way.

    Friday, Sep 8 @ 11:40 am