Trayvon Martin’s postings, records spark court debate

USA TODAY, October 19, 2012

By Yamiche Alcindor

SANFORD, Fla. — A judge ruled Friday that Trayvon Martin’s school and social media records should be provided to attorneys defending the man accused of killing the teen, who they argue was the aggressor in the conflict and has a history of violence.

Judge Debra Nelson cited Florida’s self-defense law in her ruling and said attorneys for George Zimmerman have the right to determine whether Trayvon was the aggressor in the conflict and whether he had a history of violence. The records must remain private, however.

“I think you’re entitled to those records,” said Nelson, at the hearing that lasted about an hour and a half.

Social-media accounts on Facebook and Twitter for Trayvon and the friend who he was talking to shortly before the shooting can also be provided to Zimmerman’s attorneys, Nelson ruled. However, she added that she would entertain motions by both Twitter and Facebook if either company did not want to provide the records.

Attorneys for Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer charged with the teen’s death, filed motions to obtain the materials. They say the information could “lead to relevant admissible evidence and is, therefore, material for the
preparation of the defense.”

“How Mr. Martin acted is relevant,” O’Mara said. “Facebook and Twitter do not carry any level of privacy.”

O’Mara said he may have some “anecdotal evidence” that Trayvon was interested in mixed martial arts. That may become important because at least one witness told police he saw a man in a “black hoodie…throwing down blows on the guy kind of MMA style.”

Nelson also ruled that Zimmerman’s medical records should be provided to prosecutors. However, Nelson will review the medical records and decide whether anything should be withheld.

Trayvon’s family said they hope to find out what medications Zimmerman may have been on before the shooting. “We want to know what drugs were in his system that made him do the things he did,” Benjamin Crump, an attorney for Trayvon’s parents, said.

Zimmerman, 29, is charged with second-degree murder in the shooting of Trayvon on Feb. 26. He told police he shot the 17-year-old in self-defense after the teen repeatedly knocked his head to the ground. Trayvon’s family said Zimmerman racially profiled the unarmed black teen and confronted him as he walked home from a convenience store.

A trial date of June 10 was set by Judge Nelson, who is presiding over the case. Mark O’Mara, Zimmerman’s lawyer, says he hopes to have a self-defense immunity hearing in April or May where the judge will be asked to drop the charges.

O’Mara has filed a motion to keep lawyers from speaking to witnesses before they are deposed.

O’Mara, in the motion filed Friday, says a state attorney who initially was involved in the decision about whether to charge Zimmerman disagreed with lead police investigator Christopher Serino’s recommendation that Zimmerman be charged with manslaughter.

Assistant State Attorney Jim Carter disagreed after more than a week of meetings with several officers, including Chief Bill Lee, who was later fired.

“It didn’t seem like anyone in law enforcement wanted him (Zimmerman) arrested,” O’Mara said. “I’ve very concerned about the basis for this prosecution.”

Outside the courtroom, Zimmerman’s brother, Robert, said he would continue to pray for his family and the judge.

“A race card was thrown down early,” he said. “It’s time that we shred it. Race didn’t have a place in this case. My brother responded to a person asking a question. They solicited a description, and that’s what George did.”

Meanwhile, Trayvon’s parents and their attorneys called defense’s requests for school records and social media a “fishing expedition” aimed at attacking the teen.

“His school records aren’t relevant,” Tracy Martin told USA TODAY. “Trayvon was the victim. I think it’s an attempt to assassinate his character. They are trying to say Trayvon was a troubled child, and he wasn’t.”

Now that the defense’s request has been granted, O’Mara will be receiving information such as Trayvon’s absences, suspensions, report cards, grades and SAT scores.

Trayvon’s family said that they don’t believe anything in his school records will justify his death — including the fact that the teen had recently been suspended from school for having a plastic bag with marijuana residue.

“We don’t believe the suspension had anything to do with him being murdered,” Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon’s mother, said of her son.

Crump also accused Zimmerman’s defense team of trying to prolong the case so that public interest will die down.

“They are trying to distract you from the crux of the matter — George Zimmerman murdered Trayvon,” Crump said. “The wait for justice is always a terrible thing for a family.”

As they wait for the outcome of the case, the teen’s parents have launched the Change for Trayvon Committee of Continuous Existence, which they hope will lead to changes in “stand your ground” laws across the country.

Through the organization, they hope to pass “Trayvon Martin amendments,” which would bar people who are aggressors in conflicts from using stand your ground defenses.

“We definitely have to change these laws,” Fulton said. “I’m asking any mother who has a son to support me.”

Judge Nelson also ruled that court hearings and most documents will remain accessible to the media. “This is an open court and this is a public case,” she said. “The court has no intention of closing this court.”

Moments before, Assistant State Attorney Bernie de la Rionda argued for closing hearings and sealing documents.

“It’s going to be impossible to pick a jury,” he said. “We shouldn’t have a news conference every time there’s a motion.”

Several media companies, including USA TODAY, CBS-News and The Miami Herald,successfully filed a motion to stop de la Rionda’s motions from being issued. They argued that Florida’s open records laws allow the media access to the case and the evidence.

Both sides will be back in court on Oct. 26. At that hearing, Nelson will take up whether a gag order should be enacted and whether lawyers will be allowed to speak with witnesses before they are deposed.