Warcraft mom who let toddler die while she gamed gets 25 years; appeals court rules computer search lawful

Five years after her three year old daughter died from malnutrition and dehydration, a woman who played World of Warcraft obsessively every day is now in prison. Rebecca Colleen Christie of Las Cruces, NM has been sentenced to 25 years in prison, almost two years after her 2009 conviction on second-degree murder and child abandonment charges.

As Owen Good at Kotaku wrote:

The case against Christie showed that the day the girl died, Christie had been playing Warcraft and chatting with friends she'd made online for 15 hours. Prosecutors said there appeared to be so little food that the girl ate cat food.

In a ruling from the US Court of Appeals Tenth Circuit (PDF) this week, judges confirmed the right of the state to search computers for evidence. The ruling contains some extremely upsetting details about the life and death of Ms. Christie's toddler (referenced in the court documents as "BW"), but if you can make it past that, there are some interesting 4th Amendment considerations.

The ruling also references Christie's former husband, Derek Wulf, a man enlisted in the Air Force who was also an avid (or, one might argue, pathologically obsessive) gamer.

An excerpt:

Because BW died on an Air Force base, federal authorities bore the responsibility to investigate and the power to prosecute. They proceeded against Ms. Christie and Mr. Wulf separately. In our proceeding, a federal jury found Ms. Christie guilty of second-degree murder, two assimilated state law homicide charges, as well as an assimilated child abuse charge. After trial, the district court dismissed the two assimilated homicide charges and entered a twenty-five year sentence on the remaining second-degree federal murder and the assimilated child abuse charge.

It is this judgment both sides now appeal.

Much of the evidence presented at trial against Ms. Christie came from the computer she so prized. From their forensic analysis, 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."

Ms. Christie contends this evidence and more from her computer was uncovered in violation of her Fourth Amendment rights and the district court should have suppressed it from her trial. Because the court didn't, because it admitted the proof against her, Ms. Christie says a new trial is required. To be precise, Ms. Christie doesn't question whether the government's seizure of the computer satisfied the Fourth Amendment. The government took possession of the computer in May 2006 with Mr. Wulf's consent. Everyone accepts that he was at least a co-owner of the computer—it was a gift from his father—and everyone accepts he had at least apparent authority to relinquish its control. Instead, Ms. Christie attacks the propriety of the two searches the government undertook once it had control of the computer. To justify its searches the government does not seek to rely on Mr. Wulf's consent but points to a pair of warrants it sought and received, one for each search. It is these warrants Ms. Christie challenges, arguing they were issued in defiance of the Fourth Amendment.

The judges conclude by stating:

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.
The judgment is affirmed.