Acting Quickly to Safegaurd
Time is of the Essence!
The high-profile Trayvon Martin case has, from its beginnings, been almost a real-time study of the effects of social media on a trial in 2012. When the tragic events that set the Martin case in motion occurred on the night of February 26, social media was not a factor — the death of the unarmed black teenager was not, for instance, precipitated by Twitter, Facebook or a blog posting. And in fact, the shooting went largely unnoticed for a great many weeks. It was not until the circumstances surrounding the young man’s death was picked up by users of the sites and the decision not to arrest George Zimmerman (the shooter who says he acted in self-defense when he shot Martin) was widely criticized and amplified across social media. Within weeks, the Trayvon Martin case had become national news, due to use of sites like Twitter and Facebook to publicize the details of the case and examine the choice by police in Sanford, Florida not to arrest Zimmerman. Rallies were held and protests took place across the United States, culminating in the surrender of Zimmerman to police on April 11 after a second-degree murder charge was filed by the appointed Special Prosecutor. But as much as the case would not have garnered nearly as much exposure without social media, Zimmerman’s arrest also ushered in a new era of social media used by to bolster a defense. Both Martin, the dead teenager, and Zimmerman, the man who claims to have shot him in self-defense, became smear targets in the social media sphere. And prior to his arrest, Zimmerman set up a website to solicit donations for the anticipated trial. When Zimmerman was arrested, his attorney Mark O’Mara aggressively sought to counter the negative information circulating about his client on Twitter and Facebook — a move later permitted by a judge in the case despite objections from the prosecution. But beyond that, he sought to admit Martin’s own Facebook and Twitter postings to support Zimmerman’s self-defense claims — a circumstance that has been becoming more common in civil cases, but is still considered to be treading new ground in criminal proceedings. Technology and law expert Robert Ambrogi spoke to the New York Times about O’Mara’s efforts, and Ambrogi said that the presence of social media in the courtroom and outside it is a harbinger of things to come:
“The way the whole case has been playing out in social media is typical of our times, but more typical of civil cases than criminal cases … It’s not without precedent, but it’s on the cutting edge.”
In civil cases, the breadth of data from which to draw is extensive, and less fraught with potential legal limitation due to constitutional protections. Citing the use of such information to disprove cases of work-related injury or marital infidelity, the Times quotes Kenneth Withers, director of judicial education and content for policy and law research organization The Sedona Conference. Withers explains:
“In the world of electronic information, the amount of potentially relevant information in discovery has exploded … And with social media, there has been an explosion of an explosion.”
O’Mara went even further, saying that ignoring the extant data readily and openly available on social media is negligent and arguing in court:
“This is 2012, and I’m sorry, I used to have the books on the shelf, and those days are long gone … We now have an active vehicle for information. I will tell you that today, if every defense attorney is not searching for information on something like this, he will be committing malpractice.”
Ultimately, as the Zimmerman trial wears on, the full effects of social media on the case remain to be seen. But when it concludes, chances are the implications for prosecutors and defense attorneys alike will loom large in a changing legal landscape.