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Social Media for Justice

A friend of a slain woman takes to Facebook in an attempt to get charges re-filed

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The news-feed scroll of the average Facebook user is cluttered with the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life—a random assortment of activities, interests and pictures from friends, acquaintances and, sometimes, complete strangers.

All of this Facebook activity is meant to capture even the most innocuous of daily minutiae, much of which is truly unimportant in the grand scheme of things.

Rachel Smith sees it a bit differently. For her, Facebook may be the avenue to get the justice she believes her best friend greatly deserves.

"This is to get the message out there, and keep the love and support for Genna out there," Smith said of her "Justice for Genna" page, which went live on Facebook about two weeks after the shooting death of Smith's best friend, Genna Ayup.

Ayup, 27, was shot in the head in her eastside home on the evening of June 26. The shooter was Ronald Corbin Jr., her boyfriend and the father of their 2-year-old son, Casen, who witnessed the shooting.

Corbin told Tucson police the shooting was an accident—that his handgun went off while he was putting a rubber grip on it. He admitted having several large beers at a bar just before coming home.

Corbin was eventually arrested on suspicion of manslaughter. But on Aug. 22, the Pima County Attorney's Office announced it would not file charges, citing a lack of evidence indicating Ayup's death was anything other than an accident.

Smith, who grew up in Tucson but now lives in Clovis, N.M., with her Air Force husband and their 16-month-old son, spent 10 days in Tucson immediately after her childhood friend's death. It was on the long drive home that she decided that just wishing for justice wasn't enough.

"Driving home, I was just outraged that (Corbin) hadn't been arrested," Smith said. "I said to myself, 'Where is justice for Genna?' It was when I got home that I decided to make the Facebook page."

Using the Internet to connect with an audience wasn't something new for Smith, who sells health-and-wellness products online. But she wasn't sure what would come from the Justice for Genna page.

"I just wanted to show the love and support for Genna, because she didn't have a voice anymore," Smith said. "I was just doing it for some family and friends ... I made it at 11 o'clock before going to bed, and the next day, I had over 100 supporters."

That "like" count had ballooned to more than 2,200 by last weekend, the vast majority of them from Facebook users who never crossed paths with either Smith or Ayup.

"I have people from Sweden, people from Australia, people from Mexico (liking the page)," Smith said. "It makes me want to cry, how she touched so many lives. The fact that there are complete strangers ... it just completely blows my mind."

The use of Facebook to advocate for a cause is one of the many ways in which social media continue to grow beyond just a place to keep in touch with old friends, said Catherine Brooks, an assistant professor of communication and information at the University of Arizona.

"So much of what we know is from other people," Brooks said. "Certainly, we like to hear what people are eating and wearing, and that their kids are riding the bus. But we're also opening (Facebook) up and seeing what people say we should be reading or learning about. Using it as a place for advocacy certainly makes sense."

Smith started the page on July 7. Five days later, Corbin was arrested. She believes the attention brought by the page contributed to the arrest, though police say otherwise.

"The investigation did what it was supposed to do: It found probable cause for an arrest, and an arrest was made," said Tucson police spokeswoman Sgt. Maria Hawke. She noted that it was a prosecutorial decision to drop the case, and that it was not because of an incomplete investigation.

"We understand that, especially for victims' family and friends, (a Facebook page is) a way to voice frustration," Hawke said. "We understand that. But, also, we can't let it affect the investigation."

Smith believes more could have been done regarding Genna's case, and her hope now is that the Facebook page—along with an all-out media barrage that includes local TV and radio interviews, and a petition on the advocacy website Change.org—will eventually lead to the case being reopened or examined by another agency.

The Change.org petition, which Smith says she started after researching the impact of a petition drive on the Trayvon Martin shooting case in Florida, has more than 3,400 signatures. Additionally, a story posted on the website of celebrity crime-analyst Nancy Grace could lead to coverage on Grace's cable show, depending on the traffic it draws, Smith said.

"I just feel like, whether it was an accident or not, I think there should be some accountability, some sort of consequences," Smith said.

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