Trying a case in the court of public opinion is nothing new. But the use of social media in the second-degree murder trial of George Zimmerman, who killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in February 2012, has broken new ground.
Zimmerman’s media-savvy attorneys don’t just give news conferences and show their faces on cable news networks. They have a Twitter feed @GZLegalCase, with more than 6,500 followers, and a website devoted to their client’s case.
On the website, they acknowledge they are onto something new:
“We understand that it is unusual for a legal defense to maintain a social media presence on behalf of a defendant,” they write, “but we also acknowledge that this is a very unusual case.”
“We are not surprised to discover that our decision is controversial," they add. "Some have called it unethical, and some have called it brilliant…Using social media in a high-profile lawsuit is new, and relatively unprecedented, but that is only because social media itself is relatively new …. Social media in this day and age cannot be ignored, and it would be, in fact, irresponsible to ignore the robust online conversation.”
Robust is putting it mildly. It's like a war out there. Though lead defense attorney Mark O’Mara doesn’t come right out and say it, he's fighting fire with fire.
Social media, and public relations savvy, played a big part in getting Zimmerman indicted in the first place. After police in Sanford, Fla., declined to charge Zimmerman with a crime, Martin’s parents and attorneys launched the campaign of outrage that stirred the media and civil rights activists, leading to Zimmerman’s indictment by a special prosecutor.
Though the website is used primarily to collect money for Zimmerman’s living expenses and legal costs — estimated at $30,000 a month — it also serves as an information clearinghouse on the case, with court documents, trial updates and a media request form.
The site is also used to bludgeon public figures and commentators who dispute Zimmerman’s innocence.
In one instance, Zimmerman supporters were invited to bombard Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) with protests after she introduced a resolution honoring Martin on what would have been his 18th birthday. In the resolution, she also called for an end to Florida’s “stand your ground” law. (Zimmerman’s lawyers are not relying on that statute; they are arguing a more straightforward self defense.)
In another, nearly 2,000 words were devoted to disputing the work of Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart, who is sympathetic to Martin and critical of Zimmerman.
What’s most interesting to me, though, is the amount of space devoted to explaining how Zimmerman has spent the hundreds of thousands of dollars that have flowed to him in donations since he was charged in May 2012.
Maybe it’s because they are defense attorneys, but they really sound defensive as they outline Zimmerman’s expenses for the eight-month period between last May and January:
“If $61,747.54 sounds like a lot of money for living expenses for 8 months — you are right. It’s more than most people earn in a year. Most of George’s living expenses for the first several months were allocated to providing a safe, secure place for George and his wife Shellie, to live.”
(Shellie Zimmerman is in trouble of her own. In April, she was arrested on suspicion of perjury after telling a judge at her husband’s bond hearing that they were broke. Prosecutors say the couple had raised $130,000 in the previous two weeks. Her case has not yet gone to trial.)
Zimmerman, they said, also spent some $56,000 on security, $76,000 on legal costs, and another 10 grand or so on miscellaneous expenses. O'Mara and his co-counsel, Don West, note in several places that they have not been paid at all.
If you think a defense fund for a man who provoked a confrontation with an unarmed teenager is a little -- I don't know -- unseemly, allow Zimmerman’s attorneys to explain why the fundraising is in the public interest. They sounded this note of desperation on May 29, when the fund was out of money:
“Had we declared indigency, George’s defense would end up costing Florida taxpayers more than $1,000,000,” the defense wrote. “As it stands now, with a little extra support, we’re going to get through trial for less than half that figure, and we’ll have done it, not with tax-payer funds, but with money generously donated by people from across the country who believe George is innocent and that he is being wrongly prosecuted.”
A week later, the site noted, donations hit $77,000.
Twitter: @robinabcarianCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun