A tragedy multiplied with every ‘forward’

This is a story about a photo—an image so horrific we can't print it. The picture shows the lifeless body of an 18-year-old Orange County girl named Nikki Catsouras, who was killed in a devastating car crash on Halloween day in 2006. The accident was so gruesome the coroner wouldn't allow her parents, Christos and Lesli Catsouras, to identify their daughter's body. But because of two California Highway Patrol officers, a digital camera and e-mail users' easy access to the 'Forward' button, there are now nine photos of the accident scene, taken just moments after Nikki's death, circulating virally on the Web. In one, her nearly decapitated head is drooping out of the shattered window of her father's Porsche.

The Web is full of dark images, so perhaps the urge to post these tragic pictures isn't surprising. But for the Catsouras family, the photos are a daily torment. Just days after Nikki's death, her father, a local real-estate agent, clicked open an e-mail that appeared to be a property listing. On to his screen popped his daughter's bloodied face, captioned with the words 'Woohoo Daddy! Hey daddy, I'm still alive.' Nikki's sisters—Danielle, 18, Christiana, 16, and Kira, 10—have managed to avoid the photos, but live in fear that they'll happen upon them. And so the Catsourases are spending thousands in legal fees in an attempt to stop strangers from displaying the grisly images—an effort that has transformed Nikki's death into a case about privacy, cyber-harassment and image control.

The Catsourases are by no means the first to suffer at the hands of cyber-aggressors. But their story is unique in that it touches on so many of the ways the Web has become perverted: as an outlet for morbid curiosities, a space where cruel behaviour suffers little consequence and an uncontrollable forum in which things once private can go public in an instant. The case also illustrates how the law has struggled to define how legal concepts like privacy and defamation are translated into an online world.

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