SANFORD, FLA. — Trayvon Martin’s fatal shooting garnered worldwide attention when the man who fatally shot him wasn’t arrested for weeks — a backlash fueled largely by social media. Now, social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook have permeated George Zimmerman’s trial both inside and outside the courtroom.
A witness who testified via Skype was inundated with calls from other users on the Internet-based phone service, and a defense attorney was tripped up by a photo his daughter posted on Instagram. Jurors and witnesses have been grilled about their postings and whom they follow.
Social media has become inextricably tied to daily life, a fact reflected by its presence in Zimmerman’s murder trial. The trial is a top trend almost daily, with thousands of people tweeting their thoughts with the hashtag #ZimmermanTrial. Witnesses have tweeted about their testimony, including Martin’s friend Rachel Jeantel, who after tense questioning became the brunt of spoof accounts poking fun at her candid statements and dialect.
It’s not the first time social media has become the backbone of a high-profile criminal case: Casey Anthony’s trial on charges she murdered her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee, was closely watched, too. Photos posted on social media accounts showing Anthony’s partying in the days after her daughter’s disappearance became a key point in the case.
Zimmerman, a former neighborhood watch volunteer, has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and said he shot the unarmed 17-year-old Martin in self-defense during a scuffle in the townhome complex where he lived and Martin was visiting his father.
Among the first to publicize the story was nationally syndicated radio host Michael Baisden, who sent a message to his 65,000 Twitter followers and 585,000 Facebook fans: “Unarmed 17-year-old boy shot by neighborhood watch captain in Sanford, FL outside of Orlando.” It provided a link to a story. Soon afterward, Martin’s parents started an online petition on Change.org demanding Zimmerman’s arrest. It generated more than 2.2 million signatures.
The trial began with attorneys scouring potential jurors’ profiles, using Facebook postings to keep two off the jury. Witnesses haven’t been immune, either, a fact Zimmerman’s lead defense attorney recently acknowledged.
“So it’s been an amazing sort of umbrella in this case, the whole sort of social media presence, and what it means both in investigation, to interaction, to now having to react to it as lawyer,” attorney Mark O’Mara recently told reporters.
Zimmerman’s team was no stranger to social media before the trial began, using Twitter and a website to raise money for his defense and make public statements. Still, experts say the legal profession is still catching up to technology so easily accessed on smartphones.
“The law is always a little bit behind, or sometimes a lot behind, the rest of the culture, so the law is still trying to figure out whether or not we should be treating social media as a given,” said Mary Anne Franks, a law professor at the University of Miami Law School. “It’s really unsettled right now. But the impulse seems to be, yes, look at everything you can because the more information, the better.”
Those involved in the Zimmerman case appear to have been tripped up by social media on at least two occasions.
While questioning Jenna Lauer, a former neighbor of Zimmerman who testified she heard screams for help outside her townhome, prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda accused her of following Zimmerman’s brother on Twitter. After taking a look at a Twitter page de la Rionda had pulled up on a computer, Lauer had to explain to him that it was Zimmerman’s brother following her.
“I apologize,” de la Rionda said.
On the defense side, an Instagram photo posted by attorney Don West’s daughter became the subject of a prosecution motion for an inquiry. Prosecutors said the photo showing West eating ice cream with his daughters was posted after West’s tense cross-examination with prosecution witness Rachel Jeantel last week. The caption read, “We beat stupidity celebration cones” and “dadkilledit.” West said in a court filing Tuesday that the photo was taken a day before Jeantel testified and has nothing to do with her testimony. He called the prosecution’s motion irresponsible and said he had nothing to do with the posting of the photo or its caption.
Lawyers in routine cases typically don’t have time to scour the social media sites of potential jurors, though it has become more commonplace in highly publicized cases. It has become more common practice to vet the accounts of witnesses, as their posts may expose particular biases, motives or contradictions in their testimony, said David Hill, an Orlando criminal defense attorney.
“Like it or not, when it comes to Facebook and social media, it may not just be Big Brother watching you, but your friendly neighborhood criminal defense attorney,” he said.