If the parents of slain Florida teenager Trayvon Martin can use social media and the Internet to demand justice, so, too, can the boy's killer.
Lawyers for George Zimmerman, who has been charged with second-degree murder in the 17-year-old's death, have created a Facebook page, Twitter account, website and blog to counteract the vitriol heaped on their client.
Zimmerman's legal team has entered the virtual echo chamber to communicate directly with supporters and detractors alike of the neighborhood watch volunteer who says he shot the unarmed boy in self-defense.
It's an extraordinary move for defense attorneys in a criminal case. But, then, this case isn't ordinary.
The Feb. 26 shooting went viral, gaining national attention, in large part due to the use of Change.org and Twitter by the boy's parents and supporters who pushed for Zimmerman's arrest.
The initial decision by police not to arrest Zimmerman at the scene has raised the question of police misconduct. And race has become a flashpoint: Zimmerman, whose father is white and mother is Hispanic, has been accused of racially profiling Trayvon, who was African-American. The two factors have led to comparisons with the O.J. Simpson murder trial.
If this becomes the Simpson case for the digital era, as some have predicted, it is unfolding long before it might ever reach a trial as both sides now try to shape public perception.
"If you are facing serious prison time, you want to load the dice as best you can," says crisis management specialist Eric Dezenhall, who advised attorneys representing Michael Jackson in a 2005 molestation trial, in which the singer was acquitted. "If you know that the case is being publicly debated, if there's any chance of convincing the public that your client is innocent, you're going to try to do it using real facts and plausible narratives."
Building A Defense Strategy
In the same way that Trayvon's supporters credit social media with generating public pressure for an arrest, the platform now could provide Zimmerman's attorneys an advantage in preparing their defense.
Prosecutors are free to monitor such public forums, but they are prohibited from participating in the discussions. But the defense can fully participate, analyze the prevailing opinions, and build their strategy accordingly.
The presiding judge in the case has refused to grant the prosecutor's request to impose a gag order on the attorneys.
"All the social media could make jury selection for the prosecution really problematic because you don't know what information [jurors] have had access to," says Barry Krisher, a retired prosecutor who served 16 years as the state's attorney for Palm Beach County, Fla. "My concern is, do they have a version of the facts in their mind that I have to counteract before I even put my case on?
"Am I starting on an equal footing with the defense because he's been able to put his positive spin out there?" Krisher says. "You're walking out there potentially into a minefield."
Posting on the new blog at GZlegalCase.com, the Orlando law firm of Mark O'Mara, who is Zimmerman's lead attorney, acknowledges the tactics are "unusual." But, the attorneys say, "social media in this day and age cannot be ignored" and
it would be "irresponsible to ignore the robust online conversation."
They have much to confront. Tweets have been particularly inflammatory in accusing Zimmerman of being a racist. Discussion threads have included death threats against Zimmerman.
Zimmerman's team has set up a separate website to raise money for his legal defense and other expenses while he lives in an undisclosed location. The website replaces one established by Zimmerman before his arrest that raised roughly $200,000, according to O'Mara.
The attorneys have issued guidelines for communicating on their platforms. They say they won't disclose evidence in the case or discuss Trayvon's "character." They insist they will remove any offensive posts.
Mining Social Media Treasures
In a post on their Facebook page, which received nearly 2,000 "Likes" as of early Wednesday, the attorneys said: "We want you to be able to express how you feel about the case and topics surrounding the case, and we welcome support [and] criticism, and we hope you find that reflected in the way we have moderated this forum."
One user responded: "As if this entire affair wasn't disgusting enough.... Mr. O'Mara, you may well live to regret this public pandering. I mean that in the sense of the hit to your reputation."
Another user wrote: "Do you think an average person would actually WANT to kill someone if they didn't have to? When you have no other option than to die yourself or sustain serious and maybe permanent injury, wouldn't you do whatever you can."
Analyzing the opinions and tastes of social media users is an important tool for advertisers, retailers or other consumer companies. For attorneys in a sensitive, polarizing criminal case, the practice is new territory — and a potential "treasure-trove," says Florida jury consultant Amy Singer.
Singer said Zimmerman's attorneys essentially could market-test parts of their legal argument online. Questions posed on Twitter about Zimmerman's account of the shooting or the police investigation could well be questions that future jurors raise.
"There are so many rumors and so much psychology going into this case that I don't think O'Mara had any choice but to join in the conversation," Singer says. "You have to know what questions about the case people want answers to, what emotions they have about certain evidence."
Singer analyzed some 40,000 tweets for the defense team of Casey Anthony, who was found not guilty last year in the death of her young daughter. Americans overwhelmingly reacted to the verdict with shock. If prosecutors had applied the same scrutiny to social media users following the case, Singer says, they could have "sharpened their focus and better explained in court those things that were important to people [online]."
But Dezenhall, the crisis management specialist, warns that the Zimmerman team's efforts could backfire.
"You could tick off a judge or a potential jury," Dezenhall says. "Nowadays, you have to be careful of this theme of a Machiavellian defense team manipulating the media. That the very act of engaging in communications tactics is somehow evidence of gaming the system."
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