Lawyers representing George Zimmerman, the man accused in the shooting death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, have set up a website, as well as Facebook and Twitter accounts, to engage in a public discussion of the case. Although attorney George O’Mara insists that the site will not be used “for dissemination of, nor … comment on any evidence,” the legal community is conflicted over long-term ramifications.
“It really creates a haven of potential problems with regard to getting a fair trial,” attorney Joy Ragan told central Florida’s News 13. “You can’t not talk about the facts of the case and prevent miseducation of the public on the facts of the case.” Ragan also took issue with the firm’s plan to use the website to raise money for Zimmerman’s defense.
Countered trial consultant Amy Singer to the Orlando Sentinel, “I think it’s a brilliant move on [O’Mara’s] part.” She argued that taking the topic online, “you get a lot of comments, a lot of perspectives, a lot of input.” All that Zimmerman’s lawyers are doing, said Singer, is “joining in the conversation.”
Taking a legal case to the Internet can be compared to blustering about it to the news media, a long-time practice of lawyers. And with every other profession using web presence to share its story directly with the public, it’s hard to fault the legal profession for doing the same. But a key difference, as Singer points out, is that Facebook, et. al., provides a forum for discussion by everyone, everywhere. At what point does such dialogue, rife with speculation and uninformed opinion, impact the ability to seat an impartial jury?
One wonders what the website will report on—besides fundraising—if Zimmerman’s legal team adheres to its promise to keep the issues and evidence of the case off-limits. Ultimately, what is and isn’t appropriate will be endlessly debated.
One also wonders what would happen if the prosecution decided to take the same tack—setting up a website that doesn’t discuss the facts of the case, yet somehow does. Would that be considered fair game?
From a communicator’s perspective, it’s an interesting can of worms that’s been opened. I suspect PR pundits and practitioners will be wrestling with this one for a while.
It’s just too bad that the discussion will happen in the shadow of what is, by anyone’s measure, a tragic situation.