NEW YORK (CBS/AP) Rodney Bradford, a 19-year-old New Yorker, has Facebook and a desire for pancakes to thank for his freedom.
Police had pegged Bradford as the man responsible for robbing two men at gunpoint Oct. 17 in the Brooklyn housing project where he lives. Bradford spent 12 days in jail on Riker's Island pleading his innocence, but it wasn't until his family produced a Facebook update message Bradford wrote on his father's computer in Harlem - eight miles from the holdup - that police were willing to listen.
Authorities dropped robbery charges against Bradford after a timestamp on the Facebook update convinced them that he could not have been in both places at once.
What were the magic words that set Bradford free?
"WHERE MY IHOP?"
It was a jocular message, the apparently hungry Bradford sent to his girlfriend at 11:49 a.m., just one minute before the robbery.
The next day, when Bradford heard police sought him in connection with the hold-up, he turned himself in. He thought he would be cleared. Instead, a witness picked Bradford out of a lineup, and police charged him with first-degree robbery. His earlier indictment in a 2008 robbery meant Bradford faced up to 25 years if convicted.
Bradford's father and stepmother told authorities he had been in their Harlem apartment that morning, but only when Rodney Bradford Sr. discovered the Facebook message did the alibi hold water.
Bradford's lawyer Robert Reuland brought the post to the attention of Brooklyn Assistant District Attorney Lindsay Gerdes. Her office subpoenaed Facebook to verify the time and origin of the status update. When Facebook confirmed that the update had been posted from the Harlem computer, charges were dropped.
The Internet message was key to the dismissal, reported The Local, a New York Times blog.
Computers have for several years been "witnesses" to infidelities in divorce cases and fake injuries in insurance cases.
In 2008, pictures posted to Facebook of 20-year-old Joshua Lipton dressed as a prisoner at a Halloween party two weeks after a drunk driving crash helped land the college junior two years behind bars.
Far fewer defense attorneys have used Facebook, MySpace and other social networking sites to make their case.
"It was just a matter of time," said Phillip R. Malone, director of the Cyberlaw Clinic at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. "It's not at all surprising that defendants would start to use social networks to show innocence. A personal network not really any different than other trails that you would leave behind."
"You'll see cases more and more where it does become a situation where computers become a timeline of events," said Douglass A. Brush, principal computer examiner at The Digital Forensics Group.
The timeline is useful, said Brush, but it isn't always cut and dry. Increasingly advanced mobile technology means that time and location can also mislead.
Social networks and websites "take so many user inputs whether it be from a cell phone or desktop computer," Brush explained, "people log in from personal devices that it can be difficult to track where anybody was at a given point."
Because people tweet from mobiles or update their Facebook status remotely through a home computer, experts must look at IP addresses, computers caches and device histories when presenting digital evidence. Evidence that comes from Internet service providers and networks like Facebook is fairly hard to fabricate, said Malone.
"The piece that isn't very hard is the human faking," said Malone. "It's easy to have your cohort or your brother log in using your password 11:53 a.m." in a premeditated attempt to create an alibi.
"There's no technical way to disprove that," Malone added. "Courts and lawyers should be pretty skeptical of that stuff."
But Bradford's message convinced prosecutors in Brooklyn that he was not their man. The Facebook alibi has made news worldwide, and 400 new "friends" from New Zealand to Ireland have posted messages to Bradford's Facebook wall to congratulate him on his newfound freedom.
Melissa Gardner wrote on Bradford's wall on November 12 to say she had heard about Bradford's little miracle. "Thanks God for Jesus," she wrote, "AND Facebook timestamps!"
Story Contributed by Lisa Riordan Seville