Heard of the Trayvon Martin case?

Here’s a quick primer from Wikipedia (with some edits from my side – removed parts that are unnecessary to this post):

Trayvon Martin was a 17 year old African American. George Zimmerman was a 28 year old Hispanic American. The latter was on the neighborhood watch coordinator for the gated community where Martin was staying (temporarily).

While in his vehicle on a private errand, Zimmerman noticed Martin walking inside the community. Zimmerman called the Sanford Police Department to report Martin’s behavior as suspicious, because he said that Martin was “cutting in-between houses…walking very leisurely for the [rainy] weather” and “looking at all the houses”. According to a police report, “there is no indication that Trayvon Martin was involved in any criminal activity at the time of the encounter”. While still on the phone with the police dispatcher, Zimmerman left his vehicle. After the phone call concluded, there was a violent encounter between Martin and Zimmerman. The encounter ended with Zimmerman fatally shooting Martin once in the chest at close range.

Zimmerman was detained and questioned, and was then released without being charged; at the time, police said they found no evidence to contradict Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense. Allegations of racist motivation for both the shooting and police conduct, along with intense media reporting that was sometimes inaccurate, contributed to public demands for Zimmerman’s arrest. On March 22, 2012, a Special Prosecutor was appointed to take over the investigation. On April 11, 2012, the Special Prosecutor filed a charge of murder in the second degree against Zimmerman, who then turned himself in and was placed in custody. Zimmerman pleaded not guilty to the charge and is currently out on a $1 million bond while he awaits trial.

No, I’m not getting into the legal business. My interest in this case is solely because of a New York Times piece titled, ‘Social Media, Growing in Legal Circles, Find a Role in Florida Murder Case‘.

The first four paragraphs in this piece go,

When Mark O?Mara agreed to defend George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin murder case, one of his first major decisions was to embrace the Internet.

He set up a legal defense Web site for his client, a Twitter page and a Facebook account, all with the purpose of countering what he called the ?avalanche of misinformation? about the case and Mr. Zimmerman.

It was a risky move, unorthodox for a criminal defense lawyer, legal experts said, but a bold one. Late last month, the judge in the case, rebuffing the prosecution, allowed Mr. O?Mara to keep the online presence.

In so doing, the judge sanctioned the use of social media in a high-profile murder case that was already steeped in the power of Facebook, Twitter and blogs.

This update is very, very interesting in the face of the legal term, ‘Sub judice’, whereby “it is generally considered inappropriate to comment publicly on cases sub judice, which can be an offence in itself, leading to contempt of court proceedings. This is particularly true in criminal cases, where publicly discussing cases sub judice may constitute interference with due process” (Wikipedia)

And it is all the more interesting that it is happening in a country which still uses the jury system (a sworn body of people convened to render an impartial verdict [a finding of fact on a question] officially submitted to them by a court, or to set a penalty or judgmentvia Wikipedia).

George Zimmerman Legal Case: Website | Twitter

(Facebook page screenshot via NBC)

This leads me to another interesting question. Who is Mark O’Mara appealing to – the legal court or the court of public opinion? I had assumed that the latter is the domain of public relations experts, not legal experts. But here, there seems to be a mixture of both!

To be fair, the NYT pieces says this about Mark O’Mara’s effort:

Mr. O?Mara has been careful to hew to ethical requirements on his Twitter feed and Web site, which he uses to post legal documents, react to developments in the case and raise money for his client. He allows comments to be posted so long as they are not inflammatory. When the Facebook page ?devolved into people bickering,? he said, he shut it down.

On the need for such an effort, Mark O’Mara says: “The Zimmerman family has been through a lot, and they have been frequently misrepresented in the media…

That is an interesting point. If the jury can be influenced by Mark O’Mara’s own website, Facebook and Twitter feeds, one could also contend that the other side – consisting of media news and opinions, and by friends and family of Trayvon Martin – could also be an influence!

This effort perhaps balances the case since it provides everybody with a voice. It seems it was George Zimmerman himself who started a website first. NBC says this, on what happened to that website,

Zimmerman started his own website, “The Real George Zimmerman,” April 9, two days before he was arrested and charged with Martin’s murder. In the two weeks the site was up, Zimmerman raised $204,000 before O’Mara shut that site down.

“We have worked to shut down all of Mr. Zimmerman?s websites and social profiles,” O’Mara said on the new site. “It is not in Mr. Zimmerman?s best interests to speak publicly about this case, and as he has hired us to represent him, we feel part of our responsibility to our client is to provide a voice for Mr. Zimmerman, but only when it is appropriate to do so.”

So, we have a case, with two sides.

Earlier it was only the mainstream media that said and opined on such cases without interfering with the court’s proceedings, exercising utmost caution in the words they use.

Then we had people belonging to both sides commenting on the case, via mainstream media.

And then, when social media happened, they started saying things on their own.

And now we have the attorney himself, of the case, airing his views and updates on the case.

What next? The judge throwing open the verdict via an online poll?

I frankly think we’re making this social media thing a new beast. I don’t think it is.

Just because it enables people to broadcast their thoughts without depending on mainstream media and instantly (and constantly), it doesn’t mean it is new. There were tools of public broadcast earlier too. Only thing… they needed some skills. Like oratory skills or writing skills, for instance. Yes, things were not this easy like in social media, but the ease does not mean it did not exist. Of course, the spread and speed of spread offered by social media is by far faster than anything seen by mankind yet, so it is all the more why we need to treat it on par (if not at a greater degree) with other forms of broadcast media/communication channels.

Instead, we seem to be creating new rules to govern them and in the process creating a new beast out of it. I’m not sure what exactly changes in social media. If your drawing room and neighborhood gave you access to say, 100 people, to air your thoughts, social media accentuates it to say, 1,000 or 10,000 or 100,000 and more. If you were guarded in saying somethings to 100, wouldn’t you be thrice as much guarded in saying the same thing to 100,000? The same etiquette of civility and public decency apply… if not more, because not only are you broadcasting something to a large group, but whatever you say may be permanently archived forever! Heck, it can even be extracted by a court order even if you have deleted it from say, Facebook!

I do understand that not many people get the point about a simple tweet that they posted from their smartphone, while sitting in the loo, reaching 100,000 people. All that just because people do not see the 100,000 people in front of them – all they see is a notional number of ‘followers’ but do not realize that those 100,000 followers are real people who are listening to them.

But one would expect at least the courts to understand that, in this case.

Interesting days ahead!