7:38 PM EDT, May 2, 2012
Days into an unprecedented social-media push on behalf of a criminal defendant, George Zimmerman's attorney,Mark O'Mara, is already owning up to two missteps.
Neither one is significant enough to greatly impact his case. At least so far.
But the lessons in the days since O'Mara launched a voice for Zimmerman on Twitter and Facebook, as well as a blog (gzlegalcase.com), show just how dicey such exploits can be for a criminal defendant.
O'Mara may be the first criminal-defense attorney to use social media in this way.
But if he isn't careful, he could really step in it. He could find himself wiping virtual dung from his virtual shoe — but never fully ridding his case of the very real stench that's left behind.
It's easy to understand O'Mara's motives. He has already helped humanize Zimmerman and wants to maintain control over his image. He wants to correct falsehoods circulating about the case. And he wants to monitor the online conversations, hoping to glean nuggets of information that could be helpful to the defense.
But he's also providing another forum — as if there weren't enough already — for people to spout unsubstantiated theories and opinions about the man who killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin and is claiming self-defense.
Some of the Facebook threads have more than 100 comments. You have to wonder whether O'Mara is helping to calm pretrial publicity — or fuel it.
"I hope you get Zimmerman acquitted so that I can go to Florida, stalk people because I don't like the way they look, and then shoot them if they dare defend themselves," one poster wrote on the Facebook site.
There's more like that. And worse.
O'Mara acknowledges his strategy is experimental.
He says he's taking a conservative approach and won't discuss the facts of the case.
He's posted five times on the blog since Saturday on topics such as why he started the website and why he's waiting to demand evidence from prosecutors (he wants to try to keep information about witnesses private).
On Wednesday, he responded to news reports of Zimmerman's old MySpace page, including posts that contained disparaging remarks about Mexicans and a reference to previous criminal charges that were dropped. He confirmed it was his client's.
"We believe that inviting public scrutiny of the contents of this social media account invites scrutiny of the social media accounts of all parties involved," he wrote.
O'Mara is upfront about the mistakes he's made so far.
He took down a question he posted on Facebook asking what people thought about the $200,000 Zimmerman raised through a previous website set up before O'Mara took his case.
"That may be a little too close to a lobbying effort or a fact-specific effort," he said.
He is also distancing himself from a new website he set up to collect money for Zimmerman's defense.
"If I had thought it through, I wouldn't have done it with my name at all," he said, adding that he didn't want to appear to be soliciting dollars to pad his own paycheck. He has hired a former IRS agent and accountant to administer the fund and is waiting for official approval from the state Department of Consumer Affairs.
O'Mara, an experienced attorney whose style is much more down-to-earth than showman, acknowledges this may appear unbecoming to some — but argues he has little choice.
"It's taking more time than I thought," he said. "I'm getting a little bit of flak for it. But I've got to say, it's so here to stay."
He's right about that. In a case that is as high-profile as Zimmerman's, social media have become an irresistible force — for better or for worse.
O'Mara is simply joining what he could never beat on his own.
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