Florida sunshine: What the Trayvon Martin case could teach us all

Debra Pickett is President of Page 2 Communications (www.page2comm.com).  A former newspaper columnist and television commentator, Pickett offers consulting and training services to law firms and lawyers who deal with the media.  Reach her at deb@page2comm.com.

When you get right down to it, there are two types of lawyers.

First, there are those who, like George Zimmerman’s first defense attorneys Craig Sonner and Hal Uhrig, cannot get far enough away from the circus  — looking at you, Nancy Grace — that is much of TV legal journalism.  Second, there are the Mark O’Maras of the world, high-profile attorneys who seem to relish mixing it up in the media at least as much as they do arguing their cases in court.

O’Mara, the former prosecutor and long-time criminal defense attorney now representing Zimmerman, is a familiar presence on Florida TV, where he was a “legal analyst,” frequently called to comment on the Casey Anthony trial.  Before being hired on by the Zimmerman family, he even appeared on Orlando’s WKMG, talking legal strategy in the case, in which Zimmerman now faces second-degree murder charges in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

Of course, there are lots more who fall into the first camp than the second, though you’d never know that by watching TV.  In fact, virtually every attorney I consult with – and they are almost all dealing with high-profile matters – goes out of his way to point out that he’s not one of those guys.  Heck, even O’Mara himself is saying [on television] that Zimmerman’s case “needs to be tried in a courtroom,” rather than in the court of public opinion.  Virtually no one, even those guys themselves, wants to be perceived as a media-friendly attorney.  “Goes on television” is the new “chases ambulances.”

So, what’s a conscientious lawyer to do?  Can a very public case be handled in an appropriately professional way?

I believe it can.  In fact, as a former journalist, I’m sure of it.

The Zimmerman case is a perfect storm: a matter that’s been picked up by social and mainstream media alike, garnering huge coverage and passionate public debate, unfolding in a state with some of the oldest and broadest public records laws in the country.  So, yes, there will almost certainly be cameras and microphones and smart phones in the courtroom as proceedings unfold.  But this doesn’t have to be a recipe for an out-of-control entertainment spectacle.

Instead, it might be the perfect opportunity for all of us to learn some new ways to manage a high-profile case in this age of new media transparency.

First, the attorneys and judges could agree on some common-sense rules of confidentiality, like sealing off jurors’ names for a three-month cooling off period as was done in the Casey Anthony case.

Second, a court-appointed media coordinator – of the sort used routinely in Iowa and now working on an experimental basis in Moline – could help balance media access with appropriate decorum, leveling the media playing field by heading off sensationalist “exclusives.”

Third, and most importantly, the attorneys themselves could help set the right tone for the trial by scheduling regular press updates so that reporters aren’t scrambling to fill air time with speculation and sharing factual and procedural information on an open, even basis with all outlets so that media organizations aren’t in a position of being the news organ of one side or another.

The public at large will be watching this case unfold.  Wouldn’t it be great if, in doing so, they got to see our justice system as its best?

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