Zimmerman: The Defense Subpoenas for School Records and Social Media Accounts Were Proper

October 20, 2012

Diary of a Successful Loser posted the following comment last night after I went to bed. It raises several important issues, so I have seized it as an opportunity for yet another teaching moment.

” At times I get the feelings that O’Mara really does not believe in GZ’s innocence. He mentioned being accused of digging up stuff on Trayvon and countered that with GZ’s Constitutional rights to have a lawyer try his best. I have yet to hear O’Mara say that he really and honestly believes in GZ.”

You will rarely hear a lawyer say that on behalf of any client because lawyers are not supposed to judge their clients or vouch for them. They have a duty to represent each client zealously to the best of their ability, whether the client is innocent or guilty.

Absence of vouching for the innocence of a client should never be interpreted as evidence that the lawyer believes his client is guilty.

If I were representing Zimmerman, I would have asked for the same stuff he’s asking for.

Look at it this way.

Assume GZ were convicted of murder 2 and O’Mara had not presented any character evidence that TM was kown to be an MMA-style fighter and aggressive bully who picked fights. As I have stated elsewhere, such character evidence would have been admissible regarding who was the aggressor.

Let’s put aside and forget for the moment that introducing evidence of that pertinent character trait would open the door to allow the State to present evidence that Zimmerman was an aggressive bully.

Further assume that O’Mara had not subpoenaed TM’s school records and they did contain evidence that TM was an MMA-style fighter and aggressive bully who picked fights. I do not believe this is true, but let’s assume that it is for purposes of this teaching moment.

Zimmerman would have a great ineffective assistance of counsel argument against O’Mara that could result in the case being reversed and remanded for a new trial.

The Sixth Amendment established the right to effective assistance of counsel. The SCOTUS defined what constitutes effective assistance of counsel in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984).

The Strickland test is a two-part test that basically establishes a minimal standard of performance that a lawyer must provide to comply with the Effective-Assistance-of-Counsel Clause of the Sixth Amendment. If a lawyer’s level of performance (1) falls below this minimal standard and (2) the lawyer’s error is so deficient as to undermine confidence in the outcome, a reviewing court must undo the damage. If the outcome was a guilty verdict by a jury, the case must be reversed and remanded for a new trial.

Wikipedia has a good summary:

The Supreme Court began its decision with the idea that the Sixth Amendment right to counsel “exists, and is needed, in order to protect the fundamental right to a fair trial.” A fair trial is one in which “evidence subject to adversarial testing is presented to an impartial tribunal for resolution of issues defined in advance of the proceeding.” Criminal defendants require counsel’s skill and knowledge in order to be able to successfully rebuff the State’s attempt to imprison or execute them. Accordingly, the Court has ruled that counsel must be appointed for criminal defendants if they cannot afford to hire their own counsel. But the fact that “a person who happens to be a lawyer is present at trial alongside the accused… is not enough to satisfy the constitutional command.” Counsel must play the role in the adversarial system that allows the system to produce just results. Hence, the right to counsel is the right to the effective assistance of counsel.

A claim that counsel was ineffective, then, has two components. First, the defendant must show that counsel’s performance was “deficient,” such that counsel’s errors were “so serious that counsel was not functioning as the ‘counsel’ guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment.” Second, this deficient performance must be so serious as to deprive the defendant of a fair trial. Without these two showings, “it cannot be said that the conviction or death sentence resulted from a breakdown in the adversary process that renders the result unreliable.”

In order to show that counsel’s performance was “deficient,” the defendant must show that it fell below an “objective standard of reasonableness.” The legal profession is capable of maintaining standards that justify the law’s presumption that counsel ordinarily serves his function in the adversary system. This includes such basic duties as assisting the defendant and showing him undivided loyalty by representing him unburdened by any conflict of interest. Counsel should advocate the defendant’s case, consult with the defendant on the important decisions and keep him informed of important developments in the course of the prosecution. But these basic duties do not serve as a “checklist” for counsel, for “no particular set of detailed rules for counsel’s conduct can satisfactorily take account of the variety of circumstances faced by defense counsel or the range of legitimate decisions regarding how best to represent a criminal defendant.” Counsel must have “wide latitude” to make “reasonable tactical decisions,” lest the requirements for constitutionally effective assistance distract counsel from “the overriding mission of vigorous advocacy of the defendant’s cause.” Judges who evaluate ineffective assistance claims should, in turn, be highly deferential to counsel’s decisions and avoid scrutinizing them in hindsight. Harsh scrutiny would encourage the proliferation of ineffective assistance claims and “dampen the ardor and impair the independence of defense counsel.”

A criminal defense attorney has a duty to investigate a case. This duty usually includes hiring an investigator to locate and interview witnesses. In a case like this, it also includes hiring consulting experts in police procedures and forensics to review what the police did and to evaluate the procedures used and the results obtained by crime lab personnel testing evidence in the case.

More pertinent to our discussion, the duty to investigate includes subpoenaing records that may contain relevant information or that might reasonably be expected to lead to the discovery of relevant information, unless those records have been provided in discovery.

O’Mara’s decision to subpoena school records and social media accounts (Facebook and Twitter) is something I would have done and I expect every competent criminal defense lawyer also would have done.

Whether there is anything relevant and admissible in any of those records remains to be seen.

My concern today is that O’Mara might “inadvertently” publish the records on his website, whether they contain relevant information or not. The records are protected by privacy statutes because he is a juvenile, they contain private information about him and they are supposed to remain private, even after they are turned over to O’Mara. He certainly knows he should not publish them on his website or release them to the media, and he would have some serious ‘splainin’ to do, if he does. The my-secretary-did-it card is practically unavailable because the State has already played it.

Recall that the State published Zimmerman’s woeful junior college records in violation of his right to privacy and quickly acknowledged and apologized for the “clerical mistake.”

The apology did not unring the bell, of course, and now the world knows Zimmerman was a failing student.

Inexplicably adding to Zimmerman’s woes, O’Mara failed to make a sufficiently specific and timely objection to the State’s release of W9’s statements claiming that Zimmerman had molested her for a 10-year period beginning when she was 6-years-old and he was 8-years-old.

In my professional opinion, O’Mara’s failure, although obviously unintentional, was a clear violation of the objective standard of care that a lawyer should provide to his client under Strickland v. Washington. Whether it turns out to be material to the outcome of this case remains to be seen.

If Zimmerman is convicted by a jury and a reviewing court decides that O’Mara’s error materially affected the outcome of the trial, the conviction would be reversed and the case remanded for a new trial.

Since I identified and commented on his miscue at the time, I think it’s only fair that I approve of his use of subpoenas, as it is something I would have done.

To be clear, I do not believe he will find the information that he is looking for. Nevertheless, I believe he is entitled to look for it.

I hope this clarifies the legal issues regarding the subpoenas.


Zimmerman: Lawyers Lawyers Everywhere — Important Hearing Today at 1:30 pm EDT

October 19, 2012

Lawyers for prosecution, defense and various news media organizations will be in court this afternoon before Seminole County Circuit Court Judge Debra Nelson to argue about various discovery related issues in the Zimmerman case. This should be interesting, so you may want to pay attention.

The always reliable and accurate Frances Robles of the Miami Herald has the breakdown:

Assistant State Attorney Bernie de la Rionda filed papers Thursday in Seminole County Circuit Court asking a judge to muzzle defense attorney Mark O’Mara, whom the prosecutor accuses of taking to the Internet to try his case in the media.

“Unless defense counsel stops talking to the media about the case, in person or by use of defendant’s website, it will (be) more difficult to find jurors who have not been influenced by the media accounts of the case,” de la Rionda said. ” … An impartial jury could never be seated.”

De la Rionda asked Circuit Judge Debra Nelson to issue a gag order, which would silence the defense, prosecutors, law enforcement and any of the lawyers’ employees. If the judge agrees, lawyers and investigators would not be allowed to make any statements outside the courtroom about the case, evidence, credibility of witnesses or possible sentences. If the judge allows it, they would even be kept from opining about Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence.

I am not surprised by the State’s motion. The defense has been trying its case in the Court of Public Opinion for months now and the prosecution has at long last run out of patience.

Of course, the prosecution has benefited more than the defense from this strategy. After all, who can forget George Zimmerman’s appearance on the Sean Hannity Show. His smirks, denial of regret, and shifting of responsibility for Trayvon Martin’s death onto God Almighty Himself has to be one of the greatest moments in network television history for this still young second decade.

Although there may still be more gold to be mined in the proverbial “them thar hills,” I think the prosecution comprehends the notion of diminishing returns and wants to cash-in its winnings and move on to other pleasantries of a somewhat more formal nature.

The defense and media lawyers will be objecting to the motion and I do not expect Judge Nelson will seriously consider granting it. Florida’s Sunshine Law is an impressive barrier to a gag order. I predict she will deliver a sternly worded rebuke to defense counsel and we shall see what we shall see.

Judge Nelson also will be hearing argument concerning the defense request to subpoena Trayvon Martin’s middle school and high school records. The State objects to the request on the grounds that the information in the records, whether good or bad, is protected from disclosure by privacy statutes and it would be irrelevant and inadmissible at trial. Prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda called it a “fishing expedition.”

As I have said before, I believe the rules of evidence permit the defense to introduce evidence of a pertinent character trait in support of Zimmerman’s claim that Martin was the aggressor. For example, if Trayvon Martin was known to be an aggressive bully who started fights, the defense would be permitted to bring that out at trial. Specific acts of misconduct would not be admissible, however. The defense would be limited to introducing the evidence as a character trait. Assuming such evidence exists, which I doubt, it might be in the school records. Therefore, I believe the defense has a legitimate reason to want to review the records.

The problem is that the defense may post Martin’s records on its website, regardless whether they contain any reference to misconduct of any kind, whether admissible or not. The State already did that with George Zimmerman’s school records and has apologized for doing so, claiming it was a clerical mistake. Now it seeks to prevent the defense from administering a dose of what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

There is a solution to this sort of problem and I have previously recommended it. It’s called in camera review. No, it does not involve a camera. In camera review is a legal term that means in chambers. That is, the school records would be filed under seal and Judge Nelson would review them in her chambers and decide whether they contain evidence the defense has a right to review. She discloses it to both sides, if they do. Presumably, she also would order both sides not to publicize the records and might even threaten to hold them in contempt of court, if they were to violate the order.

As I said, I doubt the records contain the information that the defense has a legitimate reason to seek, so this dispute will likely be more like a proverbial tempest in a teapot. If there is any substance to it, there is a solution to deal with the records and protect privacy that has worked in the past.

The State also wants Judge Nelson to order the defense to file its requests for subpoenas in the future under seal so that it cannot publicize them on its website before submitting them for the court’s approval. This argument is part of the prosecution’s strategy to stop the defense from trying its case in the Court of Public Opinion.

This is another issue that Judge Nelson can handle with a stern warning and threat to use her contempt powers. I predict she will do so rather than establishing a special rule for O’Mara, as opposed to all other defense counsel, when seeking court approval for subpoenas.

The prosecution also is seeking George Zimmerman’s medical records at the clinic where he sought a permission-to-return-to-work authorization the day after the shooting. The defense objects on privacy grounds. I think the defense likely waived doctor-patient privilege and privacy concerns when it released a portion of his records and has intimated that his ADHD condition might explain some of his inconsistencies.

Finally, there is an interesting issue about the discoverability of Trayvon Martin’s social media accounts (Facebook and Twitter). A lawyer representing Facebook has refused to comply with the subpoena.

Once again, here’s Frances Robles,

On Monday, Facebook lawyers sent a letter to O’Mara vowing to fight the subpoena. Martin’s social-media account, Facebook attorney Furqan Mohammed said, is not only irrelevant to the case, but by law cannot be released. Mohammed said federal law protects the account information, and added that arguing the issue would have to be done in a California court.

“We think the attorneys for Facebook are essentially saying the same thing we have been saying all along: Trayvon’s Facebook and social media are completely irrelevant,” said Benjamin Crump, an attorney for Martin’s family. “All of these issues are distractions that take the focus off George Zimmerman.”

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