Trial by Online Jury a PR High-Wire Act

In the past few years, we’ve watched as murder suspects are put on trial. We’ve followed their every move and documented their journey through the judiciary in real time.  We’ve deliberated. We’ve judged. We’ve decided our own verdicts. We’ve expressed our opinions for the world to hear, read and watch.

There’s no question about it. We’ve become an online jury.

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The emergence of social media and its booming popularity have ensured that the 24-hour news cycle stays intact, providing consumers with the immediate dissemination, consumption and discussion of information through several online platforms. The use of social media provides a gateway for fluid interactions among journalists, lawyers, professionals, businesses, the government, judicial systems and the public. So how does all of this play out in the courtroom as defendants go to trial, attempt to protect their names, images and families, and stay out of jail skirting the death penalty?

Society’s obsession with social media, coupled with the public’s fascination with high-profile murder trials has led to this disturbing phenomenon of trial by online jury.

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Now, the public tweets about the courts,  journalists tweet in the courts and jurors trigger mistrials when caught tweeting by the courts — all generating an effect on the courts. Does the use of social media and the idea of trial by online jury infringe on a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial heard by an unbiased jury? How does the jury remain unbiased if they check their smart phones and see their Facebook and Twitter feeds filled with half-truths and updates that potentially include inadmissible evidence? This is just one aspect of the free press/fair trial struggle that has been in existence for the majority of the past century. Any examples coming to mind?

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Casey Anthony

Two words. One name. Casey Anthony.

Everybody knows who she is — that’s indisputable. But how does the United States and even countries on the other side of the planet learn about a young, small-town mother from Florida accused of murdering her then 2-year-old daughter, Caylee, and her voyage in avoiding a guilty verdict, prison AND the death penalty?

Casey’s whole saga began with social media. It started when her mother, Cindy, posted a cry for help on MySpace. Evidence of Casey’s social media presence and online interactions were used as evidence in the case against her. Millions of people around the world, after learning of the horrific details of the crime, followed Casey’s trial through live-stream video coverage, real-time tweets, live updates and feeds, and constant cable news coverage.

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Per the First Amendment, people have the freedom to express their opinions, and when they see, hear or read something with which they don’t like or agree, they take advantage  and plaster it all over the Internet. As people watched the live coverage of the Casey Anthony trial proceedings, they determined her guilt and expressed that opinion, no matter how distasteful, through social media.

Even newspapers were setting up Twitter handles like @OSCaseyAnthony so the public could follow the drama. This encouraged online discussion, which can be positive most of the time. But in this case, any online discussion regarding Casey Anthony soon blossomed into a full-on war zone. This wasn’t just an opportunity to provide an outlet for exchanges of different perspectives. It allowed for the public to personally put Casey Anthony on trial for the murder of her daughter, Caylee.

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Orlando Sentinel’s Casey Anthony Twitter handle

What’s interesting about this is that the most reliable news updates regarding the trial and its proceedings wasn’t a news outlet or a journalist; it was a Twitter handle set up by the 9th Judicial Circuit Court – @NinthCircuitFL.

Here is where public relations can come in handy for both the prosecution and defense. Because the Casey Anthony case was the first “trial by social media,” high-profile trials that followed have been better equipped in dealing with the constant advancement of technology. Through the implementation of media committees and the development of social media plans, courts are better equipped to deal with the circus-like atmosphere that seems to follow high-profile trials.

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Jodi Arias and Casey Anthony

Mark O’Mara, George Zimmerman’s lawyer, took some pages from the Casey Anthony trial book and looked at his client’s situation from a PR perspective. George Zimmerman was charged with the February 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin, which coincidentally took place in Florida, not too far from Anthony’s trial. O’Mara developed a website, Twitter and Facebook page, with the hopes of disputing misinformation, discrediting and eliminating fraudulent websites and social profiles, discouraging speculation and acknowledging the larger significance of the case. He provided press releases, a place for media inquiries, trial updates, and documents through the site. Although there is also a donation aspect, staying a step ahead and ensuring the dissemination of accurate and reliable information was an extremely beneficial move on O’Mara’s part to help avoid any infringement on his client’s rights.

And today, we are witnesses to another young, beautiful, brunette stand trial for murder, and are all serving on her online jury. Jodi Arias and Casey Anthony have eerily similar aspects to their cases, and it will be interesting to watch Jodi’s trial pan out in the online spotlight for the world to see. What suggestions can you offer in terms of public relations that would both protect the First Amendment’s guarantee to freedom of both speech and press and the Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial?

References:

http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2077969-2,00.html

http://www.prsa.org/Intelligence/Tactics/Articles/view/9412/1036/Law_and_order_PR_lessons_from_the_Casey_Anthony_tr

http://www.prsa.org/Intelligence/TheStrategist/Articles/view/9838/1051/On_Trial_in_the_Court_of_Public_Opin

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