One of the key players in the George Zimmerman murder trial wasn't a witness or crime-scene photo, but something anyone interested in the case had equal access to: social media.
Before, during and after the trial, social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube were used by family members, supporters, media and lawyers of Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teen he shot in a Sanford gated community Feb. 26, 2012. He was acquitted July 13.
Days after Trayvon's death, celebrities, media personalities and activists used social media to demand the Sanford Police Department arrest Zimmerman, the Neighborhood Watch volunteer who said he shot 17-year-old Trayvon in self-defense.
"Social media exposed Sanford's secrets through this case," said Lawanna Gelzer, president of the National Action Network Central Florida chapter. "What Sanford wanted to sweep under the rug is now being exposed every day."
NAN — the Rev. Al Sharpton's civil-rights organization — arranged protests, marches and demonstrations across the country just after the shooting and did so mostly through social media. A series of demonstrations in 100 U.S. cities — seven of them in Florida, including one in Orlando — are planned for Saturday.
In the beginning
Michael Skolnik, editor-in-chief of GlobalGrind.com and political director to music mogul Russell Simmons, credits social media with making Trayvon Martin a household name.
"Young people using social media forced traditional media to pay attention," Skolnik said.
Skolnik's March 2012 essay, "White People, You Will Never Look Suspicious Like Trayvon Martin," was shared more than 190,000 times on Facebook alone. He was the first person to use the hashtag #JusticeForTrayvon, which has been used nearly 906,000 times between the shooting and Friday, according to an analysis from social-media software Topsy Pro.
In March 2012, Trayvon's parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, started an online petition on Change.org calling for criminal charges against Zimmerman. Almost immediately, celebrities started promoting it on social media, including Simmons, filmmaker Spike Lee and actress Gabrielle Union.
It received nearly 3 million signatures and, at the time, was the fastest-growing petition the website had ever hosted, said Jonathan Perri, a senior campaigner with Change.org.
As of Friday, "Trayvon Martin" and "Trayvon" were tweeted about 18 million times, and in that same time period, #GeorgeZimmerman and #Zimmerman were tweeted about 15 million times, according to Topsy.
In May 2012, as Zimmerman's defense attorney Mark O'Mara was preparing for trial, he began creating social-media campaigns on behalf of his client using Twitter, Facebook and a website.
Prosecutors tried three times to get a gag order in the case — asking the judge to force O'Mara to remain quiet — but each time, their request was denied.
In one of the gag-order filings, prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda said that through social media, O'Mara "is able to control and filter commentary about the case, in effect bypassing the regular media ... and communicate the spin they want potential jurors to read about the case."
O'Mara might not be the first lawyer to use social media in such a direct way, but his efforts fall under The Florida Bar's first rule of professional conduct, said Adam Losey, an attorney with Foley & Lardner's Orlando office and founder of IT-Lex.org, a website that explores issues involving technology and the legal system.
"Our first rule is to provide competent representation, and you cannot be a competent lawyer and a diligent advocate without paying attention to social media," Losey said.
During jury selection, prosecutors and defense attorneys grilled potential jurors about their social-media profiles, but at times seemed somewhat confused as to how sites such as Twitter and Facebook work.
Jerry Patrick Counelis, a potential juror for the trial, was dismissed on June 12 after attorneys found a Facebook post he had written criticizing the Sanford Police Department and its handling of the Zimmerman investigation.
During Casey Anthony's 2011 murder trial, her defense hired a team of six people to read and analyze more than 40,000 opinions on Twitter, Facebook and various blogs and used them to craft its strategy.
When the Zimmerman trial got underway last month, Seminole County court spokeswoman Michelle Kennedy was updating reporters through email. But several media outlets complained that some were getting the emailed updates before others.
So Kennedy started a Twitter account — @PIOFLCourts18 — "and it was much more efficient," she said.
In no time, she had more than 4,000 followers. In fact, when the jury reached its verdict in the case, the world was notified through Kennedy's Twitter feed.
"I was wary about opening it," Kennedy said. "But it was the most effective way of reaching everyone simultaneously."
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