In the Trayvon Martin case, the court of public opinion has moved online.
Late last month, attorneys for George Zimmerman – the Sanford, Florida man facing second-degree murder charges in Martin’s killing – launched a website, Facebook page, and Twitter account devoted to the case. So far, they’ve used the social media platforms to comment on developments in the case, solicit money for Zimmerman’s defense, and interact with the public.
“[S]ocial media in this day and age cannot be ignored,” wrote Zimmerman attorney Mark O’Mara in an introductory blog post. “It is now a critical part of presidential politics, it has been part of revolutions in the Middle East, and it is going to be an unavoidable part of high-profile legal cases, just as traditional media has been and continues to be.”
O’Mara called his social media presence “new and relatively unprecedented,” and legal experts I spoke with could recall no previous case where a defense team has employed such tactics in a high-profile prosecution.
But some say the strategy makes sense as Zimmerman seeks to protect and bolster his image in preparation for a jury trial.
“Zimmerman was getting trashed in the press for weeks, so I think he has to come out swinging a little bit,” said California attorney and legal ethicist John Steele, who perceives that cable television coverage of the case is slanted against Zimmerman. “If you’re Mark O’Mara, why rely on Anderson Cooper, Al Sharpton, or Soledad O’Brien to get your story out?”
Still, Steele and other observers agree that O’Mara’s embrace of social media carries risk.
“They just broke through a major wall by saying the way to defend is to start a website and put out news,” said Scott Greenfield, a New York attorney and blogger. “You have to understand the dynamic of the Internet and understand that you’re playing with a monster that will devour you if you screw up.”
“Anything you put on the Internet is there forever, and no matter what you say, it can be used against you,” Greenfield said in a phone interview.
Attracting comments and dollars
O’Mara’s office has been updating the Zimmerman website and Facebook page every couple of days and tweeting multiple times a day. They’ve attracted more than 1,400 Twitter followers, topped 2,200 Facebook likes, and each post on the Facebook page has drawn dozens of public comments.
Some comments delve into the legal details of the case (“This has been a travesty both for gun owner’s rights and the right of EVERY AMERICAN to use deadly force in defense of their life.”), while others express views on the defendant (“If Zimmerman had cancer I would not give him a dime.”), the media (“HLN and CNN desire riots and racially motivated voters for the upcoming presidential election.”), and the racial issues surrounding the case (“The most prevalent form of racism in the US is blacks against everybody else. The president is the perfect example.”).
The webpage and social media sites also contain links to a PayPal account that’s accepting contributions for Zimmerman’s legal defense fund. O’Mara’s office didn’t respond to my questions about the sites or the amount of money they’re raising, but a previous website Zimmerman set up before his arrest raised more than $200,000.
While the judge in the case has raised questions about those earlier online donations, he has not imposed a gag order nor restricted the use of social media.
“There’s a legitimate role of a lawyer in protecting their client’s reputation in the public eye,” said St. Louis attorney Michael Downey, who’s written extensively on ethics issues. “If there are already a lot of reports in the media suggesting the person did something wrong, then there’s the concern it will be tough for the person to get a fair trial because people will have already convicted him in the media.”
Downey sees similarities between the Zimmerman case and the 2006 prosecution of three Duke University lacrosse players on sexual assault charges. Defense attorneys jumped into the media frenzy surrounding the North Carolina case, participated in press conferences and interviews, and allowed their clients to appear on “60 Minutes” to expose holes in the prosecution’s arguments. Officials eventually dropped the charges and disbarred the District Attorney for trumping up meritless allegations.
O’Mara’s high-profile effort on behalf of Zimmerman borrows some of the strategy of the North Carolina defense team, but adds the new tool of social media, which scarcely existed in 2006 and allows lawyers to take their cases directly to the public without going through the filter of the mainstream media.
“They can influence public opinion without waiting for the New York Times to call for an interview,” said Stephen Ward, the Director of the University of Wisconsin Center for Journalism Ethics. “And they can use this new social presence to put pressure on journalists to pick up (the lawyers’ point of view) and pass it on.”
For readers and journalists, a need for context
Ward said the technique takes a page from the social media strategy of other newsmakers — such as politicians, athletes, and actors — who prefer to communicate directly to their social media followers rather than subjecting themselves to journalistic interviews.
But in a murder case, the stakes are higher, and Ward said that puts more burden on journalists and the public to scrutinize the online posts.
“You should treat this as just another press release that you get, only it’s in a fancy new media form,” Ward said. He urged journalists to resist the urge to publish or re-tweet the attorneys’ posts without additional context, and suggested the public read the sites with a healthy dose of skepticism.
“This is a game of public relations and persuasion, and it should be treated as such,” Ward said.
At the Orlando Sentinel, state courts reporter Jeff Weiner said he’s bookmarked the Zimmerman website and checks it several times a day. But Weiner — who’s written or contributed to more than 30 stories about the case – said the site hasn’t played a big role in the Sentinel’s coverage.
“At first it was a little bit strange, because we hadn’t seen this done before,” Weiner said. “But once the newness of it faded, it hasn’t changed much about our approach.”
The Sentinel published two pieces recently about Zimmerman’s social media presence – Weiner’s news analysis and a skeptical opinion column by Beth Kassab. But Weiner said the newspaper continues to reach out to O’Mara for interviews about case developments, and he said the Sentinel has adopted a guarded approach to writing about the attorney’s online posts.
“We still have the same conversations that we would have if Mark O’Mara held a press conference,” Weiner said in a phone interview. “We examine each thing that goes on the website.”
Weiner noted in his story that the Florida Bar’s social networking guidelines — intended mainly to regulate online advertising — don’t prohibit sites like O’Mara’s. It’s less clear whether the sites would be covered by rules prohibiting statements that “materially prejudice” court proceedings. But Weiner — as well as several other legal experts I spoke with – predict social media strategies will become more common in high profile cases.
“Social media is such a raw resource,” said Downey, the St. Louis lawyer. “That’s obviously where so much of the conversation happens today.”