Trial 2.0: Is FL v. Zimmerman the future of justice?

NEED TO KNOW
  • Jury selection in Zimmerman's trial begins Monday, and one of the biggest takeaways from his story might be how the Internet has changed jurisprudence
  • Zimmerman is charged with second-degree murder for killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin on Feb. 26, 2012
Trial 2.0: Is FL v. Zimmerman the future of justice?

Can George Zimmerman get a fair trial?

Can George Zimmerman get a fair trial?

Cries for help: Is it Zimmerman or Trayvon?

George Zimmerman charged killing Trayvon Martin.

On March 19, 2012, senior digital strategist Daniel Maree logged onto his computer in his office at McCann-Erickson ad agency in New York City and read an article that would force him to act.

The article, written by NPR's Mark Memmott, detailed the fate of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed, hoodie-clad African-American teen who'd been killed in Sanford, Florida, only a few weeks prior. Martin was shot in a gated community by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer. Zimmerman says he acted in self-defense, but he has been accused of racial profiling.

Read more: Martin's autopsy report

Martin's story really resonated with Maree, whose father grew up in South Africa under apartheid.

"The institutional discrimination and racism that was at work in this particular case was just cataclysmic," Maree said. "It was too much to not do something."

For Maree, to "do something" meant organizing the Million Hoodie March, a rally that took place in multiple cities and across the Internet on March 21, 2012. He used all the tools in his digital strategist arsenal -- from a simple blog post and YouTube video to a Facebook event and fan page -- to make it happen so quickly.

But Maree's efforts aren't the only example of how the Internet has played a pivotal role in bringing attention to Martin's shooting. Buzz about the case began on Twitter and other social media sites. In fact, according to a Pew Research Center study, the story didn't explode in the national media until March 17, when audio tapes of the incident were released to the public, including a 911 call from Zimmerman. They sparked outrage when the 911 operator was heard telling him not to pursue Martin. Zimmerman, then 28, was charged with second-degree murder in April 2012.

Over the past year, the online interest in this case has not only raised public awareness about the issues surrounding it, it's resulted in substantial fundraising that's affected Zimmerman's trial in unprecedented ways. With jury selection starting Monday, all eyes will be on what's happening inside the courtroom, but one of the biggest takeaways from Zimmerman and Martin's story might just be how the Internet has changed American jurisprudence -- and how it's funded -- forever.

Call for Justice: Victim advocacy & Internet fundraising

In planning the Million Hoodie March, Maree says his goal was to call for justice, since Zimmerman had not been arrested or charged with any crime at that point, and to show solidarity with the Martin family. The rally's name invoked the image of what Martin was wearing the night he died, since many felt the hooded sweatshirt was one detail Zimmerman used to racially profile him.

Maree's efforts with the Million Hoodie March elicited a massive response.

"At the New York rally, there were over 5,000 people. Nationwide over 50,000 people rallied in over a dozen cities across the United States. There was a rally in London. There was a rally in Australia," Maree said.

Online, the campaign took on a life of its own.

"Using the hashtag '#MillionHoodies,' we asked people to upload their photos of themselves in hoodies. This viral element started trending on Twitter almost immediately," Maree said. "We collected over 500,000 images of people in hoodies who used the hashtag.

"As photos poured in from all over the world, we created an iconic poster to unify the message and built a website to aggregate photos from Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Finally, we launched a community-organizing platform to sustain the momentum and empower protesters throughout the country."

As a result of the rally and the marketing efforts around it, Maree says there were more than 600,000 web hits for and at least 3,000 online media mentions of the phrase "Million Hoodies March."

Even Martin's parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, took notice. They attended the rally in New York City and met Maree in person. Now, Maree has the goal of turning the Million Hoodie March movement into an official, non-profit organization dedicated to social causes called Million Hoodies Movement for Justice.

Read more: One year later, a 'Million Hoodie March' for Trayvon Martin

"The primary focus is that we want to amend the 'Stand Your Ground' law in Florida and the other states it has been enacted," Maree said. The law allows citizens to stand their ground and use deadly force in self-defense, if there's a reasonable fear their life is under threat. Zimmerman may use Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law as part of his defense.

Around the same time as the Million Hoodie March, in March 2012, Martin's parents started their own non-profit foundation called the Justice for Trayvon Martin Foundation.

According to Kim McCray, the executive director of the Trayvon Martin Foundation, the family's intent was to turn their loss into a positive force. Ben Crump, the Martin family attorney, told CNN in April 2012 that the foundation had raised $100,000. McCray says that, as of June 4, 2013, the foundation has raised a total of $150,000 toward its goals.

"Monies raised will be used for public advocacy against gun violence for things such as youth summits, ad campaigns, town hall meetings, parent engagement and conflict resolution workshops, etc.," McCray said. "No funds will be used to support litigation involving civil or criminal legal actions related to the trial."

Dollars and Defense: Building a case for Zimmerman

Of course, when it comes to the way Zimmerman and his camp have leveraged the power of the Web during this case, it's a very different -- and perhaps more unique -- story.

Before he was arrested and charged with any crime, Zimmerman took to the Internet asking for donations. Shawn Vincent, the communications director for the O'Mara law group, the firm representing Zimmerman, said his client asked for donations out of desperation.

"Once the scrutiny of the press and the rallies and the demonstrations began, it turned his life upside down," Vincent said. "He was unable to earn an income at that time, and his life was in free fall. It was unclear whether he would be arrested or not."

On his own, Zimmerman raised about $200,000 with a PayPal account that was shut down when his current defense attorney, Mark O'Mara, took the case in early April 2012. Zimmerman spent about $70,000 of that sum on living expenses, and $130,000 rolled into his current defense fund. After taking the case, O'Mara decided it was appropriate to raise funds for Zimmerman's defense on the Internet, and started the website gzdefensefund.com to help supporters contribute to their legal efforts. Since the website was founded in April 2012, it has raised about $336,000, according to Vincent. In total, Zimmerman has raised more than $536,000 from Internet donations. Contributions have ebbed and flowed with the media attention.

"In the last six months, there has not been a lot of national attention for the case, we have seen a significant decline in donations compared to that first six months," Vincent said on May 23. "I think it's important to know we have only really asked for money maybe three times in a direct appeal.

"So it hasn't been a marketing miracle, and there's not a lot of magic to it," Vincent added. "It's just that there was a desire to contribute to the fund, and we had an obligation to make sure our client had proper mechanism to receive those funds."

Read more: How will the Zimmerman jury be chosen?

The effectiveness of the Zimmerman camp's crowdfunding approach has become increasingly apparent since May 29, when Zimmerman's defense team announced on their website that their defense funds were running dangerously low. As of this writing, the firm has raised $85,000. That's 70% of the $120,000 they requested, and the number is still rising.

Zimmerman's lawyers say they'll put the money toward Zimmerman and his wife's living expenses and legal fees like paying for experts and transcripts of depositions. Many people wrote notes along with their donations, according to gzdefensefund.com, explaining the sentiment behind their contributions. Some said things like they weren't sure of Zimmerman's guilt or innocence, but they felt he had the right to a fair trial.

Crowdfunded Cases: Will the web change trials forever?

Zimmerman and Martin's family aren't the only people to have used the Internet to raise funds in a legal case.

Earlier this year, convicted killer Jodi Arias attempted to raise money online during her trial by selling art on a website run by a friend. According to HLN affiliate KPHO, the contributions were to be used to pay for her family's travel expenses during the trial and for better food in jail. The family of Arias' victim, Travis Alexander, has also accepted donations made online through the Travis Alexander Legacy Fund to help pay for their trial-related travel expenses.

Taking a different approach, former University of Virginia professor Michael Mann has raised more than $11,000 on the crowdfunding site Rockethub.com to pay for his legal expenses related to an investigation by the Attorney General of Virginia for allegedly committing fraud.

Crowdfunding websites are dedicated to pooling money for a variety of different causes through a collective network of individuals. Brain Meece, the CEO for Rockethub.com, says he has seen about a dozen people raise money for different legal causes on his website, and he thinks it's a natural evolution of both crowdfunding and the justice system.

"That's the beauty of living in the United States. We have a due diligence process, and you are innocent until proven guilty. If fundraising is part of that process, then crowdfunding becomes part of that process," Meece said.

However, not all organizations will engage in this type of fundraising. A representative for the popular crowdfunding site Kickerstarter.com told HLN that the website would not be the appropriate forum for a legal cause, because the site focuses on creative projects.

Zimmerman may not be the first person involved in a legal case to raise money online, but he may be the most successful.

Vincent says the amount of funds the firm has right now gives them a "fighting chance," but if they can raise their goal of $120,000, which they appear to be quickly approaching, they will have met their planned budget.

HLN legal contributor Danny Cevallos, a civil and criminal attorney and an adjunct professor at Drexel University, says attorneys will see Zimmerman's success with crowdfunding and will follow suit.

"This is the wave of the future. The Internet cuts out the middle man. So a guy in Iowa who knows nothing about the Zimmerman case may want to put $5 towards it. Twenty years ago, that wouldn't have been a possibility, and he may have not even known about the case," said Cevallos.

Cevallos says he sees the benefits of being able to raise money online for clients who do not have the means to pay for a robust criminal defense, but he also sees the potential for attorneys to run into ethical issues, because it incentivizes media coverage.

"The old rules of professional responsibility will have to adapt to the new media, which is online, Twitter, Facebook as well as TV, and the laws cannot adapt fast enough, because drawing attention 20 years ago meant something totally different than drawing attention today," said Cevallos.

"Unless the rules adapt to this kind of fundraising or address them, I believe lawyers can very easily run into problems."

Even though fund-raising efforts have been successful for Zimmerman, Vincent says he doesn't believe it will be appropriate in every legal case.

"I don't want to see lawyers out there making a stink and using social media to create attention where it's not appropriate,"said Vincent. "We are in the Internet age, and it may be irresponsible for someone who is representing someone's interest to take to the Internet to champion their cause. I think that is going to be on a case-by-case basis, and I don't think it is always going to be appropriate."

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