George Zimmerman’s defense lawyer is a familiar face on cable TV news programs, holds the occasional press conference, gives interviews to newspapers like this one, and keeps the public posted on the goings-on in the case via a controversial website.
The murder case has its own Twitter account and had a Facebook page, but defense attorney Mark O’Mara shut it down after unwieldy streams of comments.
On Friday, a Seminole County Circuit Court judge in Sanford will decide whether O’Mara’s open-door policy for social and traditional media amounts to unfair spin and should be slammed shut. A hearing will be held to debate the prosecutor’s request to gag all lawyers, their employees and law enforcement involved in the case.
The move is being fought by news companies, including the Miami Herald, which argue that silencing the lawyers would violate the media’s First Amendment rights.
O’Mara maintains that he speaks to the media and launched a website to counter extraordinary negative publicity in the first weeks of the case, when Zimmerman was in hiding, did not have a lawyer, and was the subject of saturation news coverage for having killed an unarmed teenager who carried Skittles and iced tea.
Zimmerman says he shot unarmed Miami Gardens teenager Trayvon Martin in self defense. When civil rights leaders and many members of the public did not believe Zimmerman, the slain teenager became a symbol of racial injustice that dominated news programming for weeks.
O’Mara took the case in April, and later launched a website where he posted information such as a medical record that documented Zimmerman’s injuries. He posted videos of Zimmerman’s statements to police and released the letters the defense sent requesting copies of Trayvon’s school and social media records.
At one point, O’Mara made the rounds to the national TV networks, shopping an exclusive interview with his client. Zimmerman settled for Fox and ditched Barbara Walters, who flew to Central Florida for the scoop.
“I don’t think a gag order is necessary,” O’Mara said in an interview. “Publicity in and of itself is not bad. I do speak more than I normally would, but I know the rules, and I am cautious not to go anywhere near them. ... We know what not to say, and we are not saying it.”
He added that he’s so knowledgeable about Bar Association rules governing lawyer’s speech that he gives workshops on the topic.
The hearing comes three days after activists revealed that O’Mara’s firm reached out to Zimmerman supporters on the web for help preparing for Friday’s motion. An email leaked on Facebook by a commenter on a conservative website showed O’Mara – or more likely one of his employees – asked supporters to scour the Internet to help come up with any potentially questionable statements O’Mara made since taking the case.
“We’re confident ALL our statements are easily defendable, we just want to know what we’re likely to have thrown back at us,” the email said.
People who support the murder charges spread the email around on Twitter, arguing that the note shows O’Mara takes cues for his case from right-wing bloggers, some of whom have made racially insensitive remarks about the Martin family and portrayed the teen as a thug.