Defense lawyers are free to subpoena Trayvon Martin’s school records and social media accounts, a judge ruled Friday, setting the stage for a show-down between a man facing life in prison and new media companies that are unlikely to turn over records without a fight.
The decision was a disappointment for the slain teenager’s family, who believe digging into a homicide victim’s past is tantamount to blaming a rape victim for wearing too short a skirt.
Defense attorney Mark O’Mara asked Seminole County Circuit Judge Debra Nelson to let him explore the validity of Twitter and Facebook screenshots — dug up by conservative bloggers — that portray Trayvon in a negative light. Acknowledging that he does not know whether the Facebook and Twitter material is authentic, O’Mara said the social media accounts attributed to Trayvon showed he attended and posted videos of mixed martial arts fights.
Other social media screen shots widely circulated on the web suggested Trayvon got into a fight at school and maybe even sold marijuana to his friends. Critics believe he was up to no good on the night he walked home from a 7-Eleven and wound up in a fatal encounter with an armed neighborhood watch volunteer, and believe Trayvon’s social-media posts could offer clues as to whether he had nefarious plans.
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“Let them have [the subpoena],” the judge said. “Let them argue with Twitter.”
According to case law, when a defendant claims self defense the victim’s propensity for violence is relevant, even if the defendant didn’t know anything about the victim’s history, the judge said.
George Zimmerman, 29, is charged with second-degree murder for the Feb. 26 killing of Trayvon, who was unarmed. Zimmerman claims the teen attacked him, and he was forced to shoot in self-defense.
Prosecutors, who subpoenaed and got similar evidence about Zimmerman, did not object. The family of the unarmed Miami Gardens teenager was disappointed, and called the decision a terrible precedent.
“Trayvon Martin died because George Zimmerman profiled him as a young punk under the guise of protecting his neighborhood. Now Trayvon Martin is being profiled again posthumously as an MMA- loving violent thug under the guise of pursuing justice,” said attorney Benjamin Crump, a lawyer for Trayvon’s parents, who led the charge for Zimmerman to be arrested. “This has to stop. Profiling, like racism and sexism, has no place in the criminal justice system.”
He added that there was nothing in Trayvon’s school records that would “justify murder.”
But getting a green light for subpoenas was only the start. O’Mara acknowledged that the social-media companies are unlikely to give up so quickly.
Facebook lawyers have already notified attorneys in the case in writing that they believe federal law does not allow the company to disclose user-account information. Twitter is locked in a court battle with the New York Police Department over that agency’s subpoena of tweets belonging to an Occupy Wall Street protester.
An appellate decision in that case is expected in November, O’Mara said. To avoid being found in contempt, Twitter has delivered the information to the case judge under seal.
“They are a multinational company with billions of dollars — I’m not prepared at all to take on Facebook and Twitter. I’m just hoping they understand that we have a discovery rule that says that we get information that will help prove our client was innocent,” O’Mara told reporters afterward. “If it’s there, we at least get to see if it’s there.”
O’Mara stressed that a social-media user should have no expectation of privacy.
For Trayvon’s parents, the issue was not their son’s privacy as much as his reputation. Trayvon was suspended several times in the months before his death, including one incident in which a school police officer said he caught the Michael Krop High student with a bag of what appeared to be stolen jewelry.
“As human beings, our first priority should not be character assassination and making dead children seem as though they are the perpetrator,” said Tracy Martin, Trayvon’s father.
The slain teen’s parents wanted to shift the attention to another set of sought-after documents: Zimmerman’s medical records.
Zimmerman, who appeared in court Friday looking noticeably heavier, acknowledged to investigators that he has attention deficit disorder, and medical records show that he was taking several medications for that. But prosecutors say they have only seen a portion of Zimmerman’s medical records, and there are more pages defense lawyers refuse to release.
Prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda said he wants to be sure Zimmerman had not been treated for injuries to his head or nose — where he was hit the night of the shooting — on prior occasions. He also wanted to determine whether Zimmerman sought any follow up care.
The judge said she would review the records herself and decide later.
The judge, recently assigned to the case, handled a wide scope of motions Friday, moving along quickly and cutting off attorneys when they bickered or belabored a point. In other matters before her, the judge:
• Refused the prosecutor’s request for future subpoenas to be issued under seal and set a hearing for Oct. 26 on the prosecutor’s motion to issue a gag order in the case.
• Said Crump can be listed as a witness so he can be questioned under oath about how a garbled recording of the state’s star witness came about and wound up on ABC News. Nelson also ruled that the defense could pursue getting that witness’ social-media account information as well.
• Dealt a blow to the defense by refusing to force the prosecution to turn over the home addresses of Trayvon’s parents. Defense lawyer Don West said he needed the information so he could send investigators to interview neighbors, but de la Rionda said their safety was at stake.
• Held off on ruling on an emergency motion by the defense, which asked that no lawyer in the case be allowed to talk to Sanford Police officers. O’Mara wanted the protective order because a police officer disclosed during his deposition Thursday that, in the days after the shooting, the police department held daily meetings about it and there was largely consensus that there wasn’t enough evidence to charge Zimmerman.
O’Mara said prosecutors never disclosed the daily meetings, and suggested the officer’s testimony proves that the charges were politically motivated.
“The race card, it’s time that we shred it in our society,” said Zimmerman’s brother, Robert, who attended the hearing. “Race did not have a place in this case.”