SANFORD Even Scott Pleasants, a college professor testifying by Skype in the murder trial of one of his former students, couldn’t keep a straight face when the whoosh-whoosh sounds of incoming calls derailed the testimony. His head, projected in real time on a big screen in the courtroom, was soon completely obscured by the pop-up requests of incoming callers. Tech-savvy pranksters watching the George Zimmerman trial on live television bombarded Pleasants’ Skype account July 3 while he tried to answer defense attorney Mark O’Mara’s questions via Internet video chat. Whoosh-whoosh. Whoosh-whoosh.
Despite the seriousness of the proceedings — Zimmerman, Pleasants’ former criminal-justice student, faced life in prison for the killing of Trayvon Martin — the professor and courtroom observers were suppressing laughter, the presiding judge was annoyed, and only O’Mara seemed to have a clue about what was going on.
“I gotta tell you,” O’Mara said. “There’s now a really good chance that we’re being toyed with. Just so you know.”
The Skype incident — Pleasants finished his testimony through an iPhone propped on the witness stand — encapsulated the way technology and social media played into every twist and turn of the Zimmerman trial.
Although the trial was nationally televised gavel-to-gavel, something Americans have grown accustomed to since the O.J. Simpson double-murder trial almost 20 years ago and most recently the Jodi Arias case, many thousands took to Twitter, Facebook and blogs to opine, vent and bicker about the case.
“The case touched so many chords, it became a contemporary media event as people tuned in to find out if their view of reality would be affirmed,” said Darnell Hunt, a sociology professor and director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African-American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. “The advances in social media and technology made it possible for people to follow the case but also debate it.
“Once a story goes viral, it takes on a life of its own,” Hunt said.
An indication of just how viral it went: On July 3, as the world watched the Egyptian military overthrow President Mohammed Morsi, “Zimmerman Trial” was steadily getting about 20 times the Google search traffic than “Morsi Egypt,” according to a tweet from New York Times statistician Nate Silver.
The web’s fascination with the Zimmerman case started soon after the former neighborhood-watch leader fatally shot Trayvon, 17, of Miami Gardens in February 2012.
At first a barely covered news story in Central Florida, Trayvon’s death was thrust into the national spotlight, heavily powered by social media. One of the first big hits came when Michael Baisden, who at the time hosted a nationally syndicated radio news program, posted a story link to his 585,000 Facebook and 65,000 Twitter followers. That helped to jump-start public interest and activism, both online and off.
Trayvon’s parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, quickly turned to the Internet, too, creating a change.org petition to demand the arrest of Zimmerman. The movement garnered more than 2.2 million virtual signatures. The public outcry seemed to work: Zimmerman was arrested 44 days after the shooting.
As media latched on to the racially charged case, news outlets raced to be first in posting discovery evidence, like Zimmerman’s call to police where he reported Trayvon as suspicious shortly before the killing.
A reporter for Miami’s WTJV-NBC6 and a Miami-based network producer were fired after they spliced out parts of the audio recording that, many said, made Zimmerman sound racist: “This guy looks like he’s up to no good. He looks black.” The second part of Zimmerman’s statement came in response to a dispatcher’s question about the person’s race.
As details of the case circulated — an unarmed teen shot dead while carrying a bag of Skittles and an Arizona drink — the hooded sweatshirt that Trayvon wore became nearly iconic, with scores posting, sharing and tweeting photos of themselves wearing similar garments.
Miami Heat’s Lebron James and Dwyane Wade famously posted pictures of themselves and the team donning hoodies in support of Trayvon. Others used photos of Trayvon as their Facebook and Twitter avatars, often with the words “Justice for Trayvon” across the images. As the trial neared an end Friday, thousands changed their online photos to black, using the hashtag #blackout in a sign of Trayvon solidarity.
Zimmerman and his legal team also turned to the web to rally their backers. Zimmerman created a website, The Real George Zimmerman, in which he made his claim of self-defense, quoted historical figures and included a prompt for contributions. The site is inactive.
But O’Mara, Zimmerman’s lead counsel, launched another one, gzlegalcase.com, in April 2012, dedicated to raising funds for the legal defense, releasing documents and updates on the case, and acting as a voice for Zimmerman. The site was an uncommon move in criminal trials, but Zimmerman’s team said it generated large amounts of traffic and donations and could be the new-normal in such cases.
“We contend that social media in this day and age cannot be ignored,” a message on the site reads. “It is now a critical part of presidential politics, it has been part of revolutions in the Middle East, and it is going to be an unavoidable part of high-profile legal cases, just as traditional media has been and continues to be. 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.”
University of Miami School of Law lecturer Jan L. Jacobowitz said attorneys must use the social-media tools at their disposal in order to effectively represent their clients.
“The George Zimmerman trial highlights the new normal, how social media and technology have become part of cases,” said Jacobowitz, director of the law school’s Professional Responsibility and Ethics Program. “The digital age has changed the way law is practiced in some ways.”
The defense team commissioned a California firm to make a high-tech, computer-animated re-creation of how the confrontation between Zimmerman and Trayvon may have happened.
The animation, played for jurors for during O’Mara’s closing argument Friday, looked like a computer game, with a Trayvon avatar walking up to and punching Zimmerman’s character. Its creator said he employed motion-capture suits, robotic lasers and flying drone cameras — the same technology used in movies like “Avatar” and “Iron Man” — to make the brief animation.
In contrast to the progressive technological aspects of the case, gaffes like the Skype snafu were almost a daily part of the three-week trial.
From the start of the trial, Seminole Circuit Judge Debra Nelson had court bailiffs enforce a zero-tolerance policy regarding electronic noises in the courtroom. At least a dozen reporters and public observers were booted from court, one by one (including one from the Miami Herald) when their cell phones chirped or Siri spoke from the bottom of a bag.
Orlando-based Associated Press reporter Kyle Hightower managed to keep his fifth-row seat in the courtroom gallery throughout the trial by staying electronically silent.
“We all have our tricks to avoid getting ejected from the courtroom,” he said. “I actually carry two iPhones into court daily and try to keep headphones in the jacks of each one so that if they do make any unforeseen noise, I have that protection.”
Hightower was prolific on Twitter throughout the trial, averaging about 100 tweets a day since the trial began. He reached a peak of 216 tweets on June 23, the day before testimony began; the hashtags #Zimmerman and #TrayvonMartin have appeared in his tweets 641 and 431 times, respectively. During testimony, attorneys grilled several witnesses about their social-media activities, trying to highlight bias on the basis of Facebook “likes” and Twitter follows. Often, the questioning did little but reveal lawyers’ unfamiliarity with how social media works.
Prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda accused former Zimmerman neighbor Jenna Lauer of following the Twitter account of Zimmerman’s brother.
Lauer, who acknowledged having a Twitter account but said, “I hardly know how to use that,” denied following Robert Zimmerman’s Twitter stream.
That led to a painful back-and-forth between her and de la Rionda, laptop in hand, about how Twitter works. In the end, neither seemed to have had a very good grasp on the social networking site, and de la Rionda backed down.
“I apologize,” he said.
Several potential jurors were dismissed when lawyers discovered Facebook posts and “likes” that revealed their personal views on the case. One man was taken out of consideration for writing on Facebook, “The Seminole County ‘Justice’ System needs an ENEMA.”
Trayvon’s and Zimmerman’s digital imprints also were hotly debated topics online, painting both in a negative light. Trayvon’s tweets were laced with profanity; his texts and Facebook messages included talk of fighting, drugs and guns. Zimmerman made disparaging remarks about Mexicans on his MySpace page in 2005. None of those things was allowed into evidence.
Resuming court after breaks, Nelson would ask jurors a series of questions to ensure they hadn’t violated any of her rules of sequestration. Her script included the phrase, “Did you read or create any emails, text messages, twitters, tweets, blogs or social-networking pages about the case?” Later in the trial, perhaps on the advice of others, Nelson excised the misused “twitters” from her question.
Twitter lit up in the trial’s second week after a photo surfaced that defense attorney Don West’s 23-year-old daughter posted on Instagram. The image, of West and two of his daughters eating Chick-fil-A ice cream cones, included the caption “We beat stupidity celebration cones” and the hashtag #dadkilledit.
Many thought the Instagram photo was a dig at witness Rachel Jeantel, a 19-year-old friend of Trayvon’s from Miami whose cross-examination by West was often contentious. The state filed a motion asking Nelson to investigate the picture, which became a non-issue when West noted it was taken and posted before Jeantel’s testimony started. He later apologized for his daughter’s insensitive caption.
Jeantel’s two-day testimony generated tons of Twitter buzz, as well as parody accounts and people who poked fun at her diction, grammar, demeanor, physique and attitude. At the height of her testimony, tweets mentioning Jeantel flew at the rate of 2,393 a minute. The number of people following her actual account swelled from about 200 before she took the stand to more than 11,000 now.
While the trial’s verdict was carried live on traditional media, the aftermath continues to be steeped deeply in social media, from Twitter reactions to new online petitions -- not unlike what helped push the case in the first place – calling for a Department of Justice criminal civil rights investigation of Zimmerman. By midday, about 148,000 people had signed a petition on moveon.org and at least 250,000 signed a petition on the NAACP’s website, crashing the site several times under heavy traffic.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.