WAXAHACHIE, TX -- The criminal legal problems of a former website publisher in a small Texas town south of Dallas shows how much trouble can erupt when bloggers fail to adhere to basic professional journalism standards.
Joey Dauben, former publisher of Ellis County Observer, received five years probation on Nov. 15 in lieu of a one-year state jail sentence recommended by a jury after a one-day trial and conviction the previous day.
Judge Bob Carroll of the 40th District Court ordered Dauben, 31, to serve five years probation, after the jury convicted him of "fraudulent use of private identifying information" in connection with a post on his blog in 2011.
During the probation, Dauben's Internet use will be restricted. He will not be allowed to maintain a Facebook page or other website, he will be prohibited from posting comments on the Internet or on any kind of public pages and he will be allowed only one e-mail account for work and other approved personal messaging to family and friends. He will be confined to Ellis County and must observe an 11 p.m. curfew. He also must submit to a yearly polygraph test and register any electronic devices he owns.
Earlier in the year Judge Carroll ordered Dauben to forfeit the website domain name EllisCountyObserver.com in connection with the felony charge pending against him, similar to the way suspected defendants in drug-related cases are forced to forfeit automobiles and other property.
In convicting Dauben, the jury recommended a one-year sentence and a $2,400 fine, but it also suggested the former publisher be allowed to avoid jail through community supervision, as it was his first felony conviction.
In the blog post that resulted in criminal charges in Ellis County, Dauben identified a Red Oak man -- by full legal name, date-of-birth, and place of work -- whose ex-wife had accused her ex-husband of molesting their children.
When Red Oak Police charged the woman with filing a false police report, Dauben issued a retraction and an apology after being contacted by the man's lawyer. Subsequently, in June 2011, the police department in cooperation with the Henderson County Sheriff's Department raided Dauben's Cedar Creek Lake hone office, seizing his computer and files.
Ellis County District Attorney Patrick Wilson reportedly told the jury that Dauben appeared to be acting in the capacity of a vigilante, rather than a journalist reporting the news. Wilson said that the information Dauben reported about the Red Oak man could have led to the destruction of his reputation and possible physical harm to him.
Wilson asked for a longer sentence of five years and a stiffer fine of $5,000, but he reportedly also suggested the former publisher be given probation.
In an interview prior to his trial, Dauben said that he realized he had exercised poor judgment in his post by failing to investigate the allegation before reporting it. But he contended that it should have been a civil libel legal matter instead of criminal prosecution.
Dauben, who was returned to jail because he will soon be transferred to Navarro County where he faces criminal prosecution charges he engaged in sex with a 15-year-old male teenager on a church trip five years ago, was disappointed by the conviction, but he and his support network of family and friends remain upbeat, according to his girlfriend Presley Renae Crowe.
"Joey is confident, and he knows what he has got to do," Crowe said in a phone text message. "He's ready to at least get all of this behind us, and get our life going so that maybe one day we can start a family. That idea and the thought of being with his family with no restriction is what is keeping him going."
Because of the Navarro County charges his terms of release on bond prevented him from being in the presence of his sisters' children. When he was first released on bond, he was barred from his parent's home by the judge because a church day school was at the other end of the block. That restriction was later relaxed so he could live at his parents' house rather than in a motel.
Dauben was awaiting trial free on $5,000 bond until Judge Carroll revoked his bond in Ellis County because he found in a hearing that the former publisher had violated the terms of his pre-trial release by engaging in "direct or indirect" Internet use. As a result of the developments in Ellis County his pre-trial release on $50,000 bond in Navarro County also ended.
"I just hope we can get the dollars to get him out of Navarro County Jail before his trial there, but who knows how it will pan out," Crowe said.
Dauben has declared his innocence in the charges he faces in Navarro County. He was arrested on those charges in late December 2011 and spent more than two months in jail before being released on bond. He has maintained that enemies he wrote about over the years who held grudges against him conspired to get him arrested on those charges.
The Navarro County indictment preceded the Ellis County indictment, and Dauben maintained that a bitter enemy of his -- a mainstream newspaper publisher -- served on the Ellis County grand jury. He also claimed that Wilson was acting out of vengeance because of Dauben's previous reporting about politics, and that the district attorney was infuriated that he had published a list of the grand jurors' names in a hard copy of the Ellis County Observer he distributed.
Wilson claimed that he had numerous complaints from people whom Dauben had targeted in his reports, and that they were terrified of him.
The Navarro County trial was scheduled for last month, but a mistrial was declared because Judge James Lagomarsino of the 13th District Court declared a mistrial when prosecutors and defenders failed to agreed on a sufficient number of acceptable jurors.
When Dauben was first arrested on the Navarro County charges, his bond was set at $200,000. He remained in jail for over two months because an apparent clerical error resulted in him not getting a court-appointed lawyer until his plight was reported by the media.The bond was then reduced to $50,000, and he was released until he was ordered back to jail in Ellis County.
It is not Dauben's first time to run afoul of the law and get arrested. Two years ago Dauben received a $10,000 settlement in connection with his false arrest in 2009 by Combine police officers in connection with his posting of a mug shot of a policeman.
During Dauben's decade-long career as a journalist, which started with a job at a newspaper and evolved to self-publishing under the Ellis County Observer banner, he has made numerous enemies who have rejoiced at the news of his legal problems this year. His critics call him unfair, unprofessional and reckless, while acknowledging that he possesses a natural talent for journalism.