Here at IT-Lex, we often write about eDiscovery, spoliation, and other procedural issues. Covering doctrines that can be tedious at times, we always try to find the inherent humor in each case and hope to arouse a moderate chuckle from our readers.
But some cases fail to inspire any humor whatsoever, and this is one of them. Fair warning: the facts of this case are despicable.
We turn to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit and the case of United States v. Christie, an appeal from a woman convicted of a federal second-degree murder charge and a state “negligent child abuse not resulting in death” charge. Originating in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico, the case landed in federal court because the victim died on an Air Force base, giving federal authorities the power to investigate and prosecute.
The victim was Christie’s own three-year-old daughter. And Christie didn’t kill her daughter with a weapon, or by drowning her, or by suffocation—she killed with neglect. Neglect that arose from Christie’s uncontrollable addiction to the computer game World of Warcraft. From the Tenth Circuit opinion:
For Rebecca Christie, life must have seemed more virtual than real. She usually awoke around noon, settled in before her computer, and logged on to World of Warcraft for gaming sessions lasting well past midnight. There she assumed a new identity in a fantastical world filled with dragons and demons where players staged heroic adventures with and against other players. All the while back in the real world Ms. Christie ignored the needs of her three-year-old daughter. The neglect didn’t prove fatal so long as Ms. Christie’s husband was around to provide some care. But nine days after her husband left for an out-of-state deployment, the child was dead from dehydration.
For her part, Ms. Christie would put BW [the child] to bed each night around 10 p.m., shut BW’s door, and failed to retrieve the child until noon or later the following day. Because BW couldn’t open the door herself, Ms. Christie effectively locked the child away without food or water for fourteen or more hours a day. Even when BW was free to seek food and water it appears little was available to her. Ms. Christie let slip to investigators that the child was always hungry and would sometimes try to eat the food she left out for the family cats.
As the opinion elucidates, the child was effectively ignored by both parents, but her father, Derek Wulf, provided some modicum of care that kept her alive. But a deployment sent Wulf across the country and left his daughter solely in the care of her mother, Rebecca Christie. Medical examiners testified at trial that the telltale gruesome signs of impending death would have been readily apparent:
Medical experts testified that BW’s desperate condition in the days before her death would have been blindingly clear. BW would have sought out water as a survival instinct. When that failed, she would have become lethargic and, on the day before her death, too weak to move. Her diapers wouldn’t have needed changing. She would have had sticky saliva and then no saliva at all. She would have developed cracked lips, sunken eyes, and a sunken abdomen.
First responders confirmed that this is exactly what they saw when they found the child. They testified that BW’s lips were cracked and blue, her eyes glassy, and her eyelids so dry they couldn’t close. They said bones protruded from her body and her gums had turned black.
The jury found Christie guilty of both second-degree federal murder and negligent child abuse, and the court sentenced her to a 25-year prison sentence.
This is not the first time video games have played some role in a death. This Spike article gives ten examples of deaths stemming from video games, and this article notes two other World of Warcraft fan deaths. And while all these examples demonstrate unnecessary and unavoidable tragedies, none seem to rise to the level of a mother simply ignoring her child to death.
Christie appealed her convictions to the Tenth Circuit on multiple constitutional grounds, only one of which is of interest to us. She challenged the validity of the search warrants used by law enforcement officials to search her computer, relying on the Fourth Amendment for her arguments. Investigators had found substantial evidence on the computer that circumstantially demonstrated Christie’s negligent behavior toward her daughter.
FBI investigators learned that Ms. Christie’s online activities usually kept her busy from noon to 3 a.m. with little pause. They learned that she was in a chat room only an hour before finding BW near death, and that she was back online soon afterwards. They learned from Ms. Christie’s messages to other gamers that she was annoyed by her responsibilities as a mother and “want[ed] out of this house fast.” When Mr. Wulf was slated for deployment, she announced to online friends that she would soon be free to “effing party.” (emphasis added).
Christie challenged the first warrant, issued in October 2006, because it came five months after law enforcement seized the computer. This delay, she argued, violated her Fourth Amendment right against “unreasonable searches.” The court disagreed with her for two reasons: First, her husband—a co-owner of the computer in question—consented to its seizure, and Christie failed to ever raise an objection to its seizure. Second, the government’s need to attend to higher-priority duties resulted in the search delay, and there was no evidence that the delays could have been avoided:
To decide this case we need only hold (and only hold) that when an investigator obtains property by consent and retains it without objection, and when his search is delayed by virtue of having to attend to other and higher law enforcement priorities and no evidence suggests a reassignment was reasonably possible, a five-month delay isn’t constitutionally unreasonable.
Christie then challenged the second search warrant, issued in May 2009, with the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against warrants that do not “particularly describ[e] the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” As the court quoted, a warrant is not intended to allow “a general . . . rummaging.”
The particularity requirement’s application to computer searches is still an emerging legal area, but the court noted that some lines have been drawn. Notably, warrants with no limiting principle that seek to allow searches of “any and all” information on a computer will be invalid. But warrants might pass the particularity test if “they limit their scope either ‘to evidence of specific federal crimes or [to] specific types of material.’”
Christie argued that the warrant allowed access to any and all documents on the computer for any and all purposes because it authorized a search for:
[a]ll records and information relating to the murder, neglect, and abuse of [BW] . . . including . . . All records and information, including any diaries or calendars, showing the day-to-day activities of Rebecca Christie and/or [BW].
The government countered and argued that the search parameters of the warrant were restricted to its opening language, i.e. only information relevant to the murder of the child. The court agreed with the government, citing a case in which a similar warrant had been approved and noting the established principle that the Fourth Amendment’s exclusionary rule does not bar evidence obtained by officers who acted in good faith and with reasonable reliance on a facially valid search warrant.
Christie then raised, perhaps, her most interesting legal argument. Christie suggested the plain view doctrine would pose a problem with computer searches. Investigators tasked with searching for specific information could, she argued, view everything on a computer and claim it was within plain view. To protect against that unconstitutional intrusion, Christie argued that a computer search warrant:
“must specify limitations not just what the government may search for but how the government should go about its search.” (emphasis in original).
Unfortunately for Christie, she did little more than pique the interest of the court on that point. Because she bore the burden of proof in her evidence suppression hearing, Christie would have needed to offer evidence of how the government’s protocols were unreasonable. But she failed to do that, and the Tenth Circuit therefore could not examine the validity of her challenge—a shame, because that might be the most interesting legal question posed in the case.
The court quickly dismissed Christie’s final challenge, this one on the May 2009 warrant, again based on unreasonable delay. Citing two of its own opinions, the court noted that lawfully seized property that is relevant to trial only has to be returned to its owner once the criminal proceedings are concluded, and again, Christie failed to make any concrete allegations why a deviation from that rule should be made. The court concluded its majority opinion succinctly, and appropriately:
So it is we decline to reverse the district court on this score, just as we find no other reversible error anywhere else in its careful treatment of this sad case.