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Murdered Ohio grandfather's family sues Facebook for not detecting killer's intent

A video showing the murder of Robert Godwin Sr. remained on Facebook for nearly two hours before it was removed.
Image: Robert Godwin, pictured here with his daughter Debbie
Robert Godwin, pictured here with his daughter Debbie.Courtesy Debbie Godwin

The family of an Ohio grandfather whose murder was recorded and posted on Facebook has filed a lawsuit against the social network, claiming it could have done more to prevent the killing.

The Easter Sunday slaying of Robert Godwin Sr. remained posted on the site for nearly two hours before it was removed. A lawsuit filed earlier this month by the victim's daughter, Debbie Godwin, in Ohio's Cuyahoga County Court, alleges Facebook should have been able to detect the killer's threats and alert authorities before he carried out the heinous act.

"Facebook prides itself on having the ability to collect and analyze, in real time, and thereafter sell [a] vast array of information so that others can specifically identify and target users for a variety of business purposes," said the complaint.

Since Facebook has users data at its disposal, the complaint alleges it should have been "aware of statements...which constituted threats that were made with the intent to intimidate or coerce a civilian population."

Natalie Naugle, Facebook's associate general counsel, said in a statement that "we want people to feel safe using Facebook, which is why we have policies in place prohibiting direct threats, attacks, serious threats of harm to public and personal safety and other criminal activity."

"We give people tools to report content that violates our policies, and take swift action to remove violating content when it’s reported to us. We sympathize with the victim’s family, who suffered such a tragic and senseless loss," she said.

The murder launched a nationwide manhunt, with the killer, Steve Stephens, being found dead several days later in Erie, Pennsylvania after a police chase. It also raised questions about Facebook's responsibility to police content and prompted the company to admit it needed to "do better."

After the shooting, Justin Osofsky, Facebook's vice president of global operations, said in a blog post the company would be reviewing its reporting flows.

An initial video in which Stephens shares his intent to murder was never reported, according to Osofsky. He also said in the post that Facebook wasn't made aware of a live video containing Stephens' confession until after it had ended. The killer's account was disabled 23 minutes later.

Facebook has been under fire for how it handles violent content on the site. While safeguards have been implemented to help people who may intend to livestream a suicide, the company had to answer questions about how it intends to "do better" after a father in Thailand murdered his baby daughter, and in another case, a Chicago teen was tortured by a group until his scalp bled. Both acts were broadcast on Facebook Live.

Facebook has a team of human moderators on hand at all hours to review content that has been reported. However, part of the onus is on people to report content that may be offensive.

As a former moderator told NBC News earlier this month, a typical day can involve reviewing as many as 8,000 pieces of content, having just seconds to make a decision about whether something needs to be removed from Facebook.