Is Leon Walker
of Rochester Hills, Mich., a hacker or a hero? And has the criminal prosecution of Mr. Walker for reading his wife's e-mail made American jurisprudence into an international joke at the very time in history when life-and-death decisions depend on fostering respect around the globe for the U.S. legal system?
The first question will apparently be put to a Michigan jury in the New Year
. The second question is already before the court of world opinion -- and the verdicts being rendered are not flattering to the United States.
"They can't blame Mr. Assange for this, can they?" wrote Robin Yates on the website of The Guardian
. From Sweden, where WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is facing criminal charges of his own, R.U. Avingalaff wrote with appropriate sarcasm that he had been a "young man" (who) listened in on my parents' phone call to see what I was getting this Christmas," but that he now realizes the error of his ways and is willing to hand himself over to the proper authorities for his transgression.
Less clever, but more directly on point, is the citizen-correspondent who wrote the London newspaper: "Yet more proof that America has too many lawyers."
The lawyer responsible for this litigation is a 64-year-old Michigan Democrat named Jessica R. Cooper who was elected Oakland County prosecutor in 2008 on a platform of making the office less political
. Leon Walker and his lawyer can be forgiven for not thinking she has lived up to that promise.
Jessica Cooper describes herself
, on official Oakland County stationery, as being "a pioneer in the world of women in the law." The pioneering principle she is championing in Mr. Walker's case is that any husband (or wife?) who reads their spouse's e-mail -- or, presumably, who accesses their Facebook pages -- without prior permission is committing a felony.
Walker's lawyer, Leon Weiss, rejected that notion. "I happen to believe that this conduct does not fall under this statute, and that the prosecution is unfortunate, and some might even say ludicrous," he told his local newspaper, the Oakland Press
Leon Walker, a 33-year-old computer technician who also works for Oakland County government, said in an interview
with the paper that he was motivated to read the e-mails because he suspected his wife, Clara, of having an affair with her second husband (Leon was her third). He also says he believed she was taking the couple's 1-year-old daughter to the other man's house during her liaisons. This concerned him, he said, because his wife had previously told him that the second husband had abused her physically, sometimes in the presence of another child, a boy, whom she had with her first husband.
"I started putting more thought into it, (and thought) she was very likely taking our daughter over to the guy's house," Walker told the Oakland Press. "So I said to myself, I bet you I can confirm that by reading her e-mail. She kept very simple passwords and she left them in notes and books throughout the house."
Leon Walker's fears were apparently confirmed, and he shared his newfound knowledge with Clara Walker's first husband, who promptly sued for custody of his son. Clara and Leon divorced, and in the custody battle over their little girl that followed, her lawyers sought to have the e-mail evidence ruled inadmissible on grounds it wasn't legally obtained.
This is a dubious assertion: Michigan has a hacking law
that prevents -- on penalty of spending up to five years in prison -- third parties from breaking into computers or computer programs, but it wouldn't seem to apply in a case such as this one. For one thing, Walker purchased the laptop in his home, and it was used by both him and his wife. His "hacking" consisted solely of typing the password to his wife's Gmail account, which he said she kept conveniently in a book beside the computer.
The pioneering prosecutor doesn't see it that way. "The guy is a hacker," Jessica Cooper said in a voice mail response to the Detroit Free Press
last week. "It was password-protected, he had wonderful skills, and was highly trained. Then he downloaded them and used them in a very contentious way."
The "contentious" use she's referring to was sharing them with his wife's first husband, which Walker had said he did out of concern about the possibility of domestic violence. "I was doing what I had to do," Walker told the Free Press
. "We're talking about putting a child in danger."
In an interview Monday with Laura Berman of the Detroit News
, Cooper sounded annoyed that this case has gone viral. "This is one of 20,000 cases," she complained. By way of justification for the decision to pursue this criminal case, the Oakland County prosecutor also said simply, "We have a hacking."
As Berman herself pointed out in her column, "we" also seem to have an adultery -- and that behavior is still on the books as constituting a crime in Michigan. Not to give Cooper any additional ideas, but no charges were filed against Clara Walker.