As Zimmerman Surrenders, Is Social Media a Game Changer for Defense Attorneys?

BY Sandi Fox  June 3, 2012 at 3:30 PM EDT

George Zimmerman steps out of a van at the Seminole County Jail in Florida; photo by Roberto Gonzalez/Getty Images

George Zimmerman steps out of a van Sunday at the Seminole County Jail in Florida after he had his bond revoked due to allegedly misleading a court about his finances; photo by Roberto Gonzalez/Getty Images

For defense attorneys, creating a social-media strategy for a legal client is a relatively new phenomenon. Attorneys for George Zimmerman, the Florida man charged in the death of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in February, launched a Facebook page, Twitter account, website to solicit donations and a blog on his behalf.

The blog’s introductory post states in part:

“We feel it would be irresponsible to ignore the robust online conversation, and we feel equally as strong about establishing a professional, responsible, and ethical approach to new media.”

The blog lists specific reasons for its creation, including disputing misinformation, providing a forum for communication with the law firm, providing a voice for Zimmerman and to raise money for his defense.

On Sunday afternoon, the Zimmerman Legal Case account broke the news via Twitter that their client had surrendered to authorities just before a deadline after a judge ordered him back to jail on Friday:

This novel use of social media may well be on trial itself.

Concerns have been raised about what effect, if any, Zimmerman’s social media presence could have on the outcome of his murder case.

“It is innovative what [Mark] O’Mara (George Zimmerman’s lead attorney) is doing there,” Thomas Julin, a member and former chair of the Florida Bar’s media and communications chapter, told the NewsHour recently.

Nicole Black, author of “Social Media for Lawyers:The Next Frontier” and vice president of MyCaseInc.com, said “The social media sites are a way for Zimmerman’s defense team to control the message.”

According to Julin, Florida lawyers must follow the bar’s trial publicity rule, which was written in 1994 and does not mention social media. According to the rule, attorneys are barred from making comments that likely would be widely published and harm the fairness of the court case.

“Prosecutors will be monitoring the site closely,” he said. “They will be looking for attempts to influence witnesses or jurors.”

Jurors chosen for Florida trials are given instructions that specifically bar the use of social media and other electronic communication methods — including Twitter, email and text messaging — until a verdict is reached. No regulations currently bar the creation or use of social media before jury selection.

Julin said he doesn’t think there will be a problem finding impartial jurors.

Black said the defense will need to walk the line very carefully so as not to taint the jury pool. Another blog post by Zimmerman’s defense team says that they will not use their online presence to disseminate or comment on evidence.

Marcy Zora, a law student at the University of Illinois and author of an article published in the Illinois Law Review, thinks the current Florida trial publicity rule should be expanded to specifically include the prohibition of “prejudicial attorney statements” on social media. She raised two concerns about the use of social media in the Zimmerman trial.

“Members of the jury pool are not only exposed to one-sided, unregulated information related to the case, but the social media websites also allow random strangers to post their opinions about the case,” she said in an email. “Second, the website could prevent selected jurors from keeping an open mind during the trial.”

Although Zora acknowledged that jurors have always had access to outside information not meant for trial, she said believes that the ease of access to social-media services has raised new concerns. “Jurors can use smartphones to access these websites at any point during the trial, and it would be very difficult to track their use,” she said.

Black thinks it is unnecessary to make new rules. She said that the rules as they exist are sufficient. “The medium doesn’t change the message,” she said. “This is a knee-jerk reaction to technology.”

She said that it is the conduct — pretrial publicity — that is at issue. Attorneys must not discuss the particulars of a case in old or new media. If an attorney violates the rule, the judge can hold him or her in contempt.

In one blog post, the Zimmerman defense wrote:

“We believe that social media will inevitably become a standard part of the legal process,” … It must be moderated in a way which protects both an individual’s right to, and our system’s responsibility to provide a fair trial with an impartial jury.”

What do you think? Should there be new regulations for attorneys concerning the use of social media on behalf of their clients? Let us know in the comments.