On February 26th, 2012, Hispanic-American neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman shot and killed 17-year old Trayvon Martin. The shooting has transfixed and divided the nation. If Americans seem eternally hungry for yet another racially charged murder trial this is certainly their nine-course royal banquet. In the Trayvon Martin shooting we have race, gun-violence, youth, as well as Florida’s controversial “stand your ground”, which throws some 2nd Amendment flavor into the mix.
The sides were quickly drawn. The Miami Heat basketball team, among many other public figures, took to wearing hoodies in support of Martin. Barack Obama, in the wake of the shooting, stated, “If I had a son, he would like Trayvon Martin.” On the other hand, FOX News Anchor Sean Hannity, among others, seemed to rally around Zimmerman for being unfairly targeted by the media.
The media frenzy that has ensued has taken different shapes and forms depending on the medium. The Pew Research Foundation found that on Cable TV and Talk Radio the conversation focused on Gun Control and Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law. Bloggers across the web focused on race related issues. On Twitter there has been almost visceral outrage against George Zimmerman and calls for justice.
Several weeks after Martin’s death, Zimmerman was charged and arrested. Many have raised the question to what Is this arrest about the law, or is media pressure, egged on by social media, running the show?
In a trial of this magnitude, people from all different backgrounds have a strong and often polarizing opinion on the case. In politics, athletics, law, and entertainment, individuals are going to have their own views and make them known. Fifty years ago, if an actor or athlete wanted to voice their opinion regarding a criminal case, they would have to write a letter to a newspaper, or attempt to get interviewed. Today, social media has allowed for any individual to voice their opinion to millions in a matter of seconds. In the case of George Zimmerman, we see the positives and possible negatives of the reality and evolution of social media and technology. The positives can be found in the ability to unify large amounts of people, likeminded people, and people who wish to mourn the untimely death of a 17 year-old boy. The negatives, with all of the online talk regarding this case, can manifest themselves in an inability for George Zimmerman to have a fair trial.
The notion of fairness in this trial must pertain to both Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. Can social media involvement on this level be fair and just for both parties? It is a difficult question to address. Already, many have issues with the charge coming over a month after the shooting. The delay can beg the question; did public support sway the decision of the Florida special prosecutor? If in fact it did not, what other role has it played? Will it ever be possible to ascertain that role?
As previously mentioned, athletes and celebrities have taken to the web advocating their stance. As millions of people listen to and follow the words of public figures, what impact then do their statements have? Our criminal justice system is built on the concept of complete innocence until proven guilty. Prior to one opening statement, many feel Zimmerman’s guilt is not in question, and have made statements as such. Can this reality of social media give Zimmerman a fair and just trial is the real question, and a question that will soon be answered.
For many Americans, George Zimmerman will always be a name synonymous with the murder of Trayvon Martin. The court’s decision will not change this reality, and the databases of Twitter and Facebook will always contain the millions of statements made in the aftermath of Martin’s death. Social media has made this case famous, jeopardizing the prospect of a fair trial for Zimmerman. It has also made him infamous, eliminating any normalcy he could have ever hoped for. And that is the dark side of social media.