George Zimmerman’s defense lawyers will subpoena Facebook, Twitter and Miami-Dade schools in a widespread pursuit of clues to suggest that Trayvon Martin could have thrown the first punch on the night he was killed, a sign that attorneys are going into attack mode in preparation for their case.
A series of notices were sent last week to Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho and the principals of the schools Trayvon attended, advising that subpoenas for copies of the slain teen’s academic and attendance records would be issued in 10 days’ time.
Similar warnings are expected to be sent this week to the popular social networking sites where Trayvon maintained accounts, defense attorney Mark O’Mara said.
Defense lawyers argue that if the defendant’s social media sites and school records were reviewed by prosecutors, it’s only fair game for Trayvon to undergo the same scrutiny. The move underscores a shift in the defense strategy, in what the slain teen’s family lawyer calls a “witch hunt” and “character assassination.” If successful, and negative rumors about Trayvon’s social media comments that have circulated the Internet for months are proven true, they would be posted on the defense website and offered legitimacy.
O’Mara said he requested school records because he is looking for a more thorough explanation to the teenager’s suspension and any hints that he had behavior problems.
“Is there anything relevant in those records? I have no idea. I know I have to look,” O’Mara said. “In a case like this that’s so high profile, everything becomes relevant. The history of those involved — including those who have passed — becomes relevant.”
Documents posted on the defense website show notices went out on Sept. 5 to Carol City High School, Michael Krop Senior High School, Norland Middle School and the school district main office. The notices contained copies of the subpoenas, which will go out after the 10-day warning period.
The subpoenas demand disciplinary records, suspension notices, class schedules, attendance and tardiness records, FCAT and SAT test scores, report cards, as well as any information about whether Trayvon belonged to any clubs or sports activities.
The Miami Herald reported earlier this year that Trayvon had been suspended from school three times, including once just before his death in an incident in which he was caught with a baggie of marijuana residue. A school police report obtained by The Herald showed Trayvon was also suspended in October 2011 for writing on a locker.
The report said the police officer who searched Trayvon’s backpack looking for the marker found a bag of jewelry and a screwdriver described as a “burglary tool.” Trayvon’s parents claimed they had no knowledge of the jewelry incident.
O’Mara said he expects Trayvon’s parents to object to the subpoenas on behalf of the high school junior’s estate.
Attorney Benjamin Crump, who represents the parents, said his clients will defer to State Attorney Angela Corey on whether to file an objection on release of the records, which are private under federal law.
“All this stuff is a witch hunt to assassinate his character,” Crump said. “It’s absolutely irrelevant and a shame that they are doing this to a dead kid.”
He stressed that the medical records Zimmerman is refusing to turn over are far more relevant than Trayvon’s grades.
Corey’s office declined to comment. It’s unclear whether she will fight the subpoena considering that her office got copies of Zimmerman’s high school and college records for its investigation and inadvertently released the sealed transcripts to the media.
Miami-Dade Schools spokesman John Schuster said the district will likely turn over the records.
“The district’s established practice is to comply with any lawfully issued subpoena,” Schuster said in an email. “Upon receipt, the parents are afforded reasonable notice of the subpoena and of our intent to comply with the subpoena unless we are provided with a court order that would preclude our compliance with the subpoena.”
The defense could face resistance from Twitter and Facebook.
Twitter is currently in litigation with the New York Police Department over a subpoena for the account records of an Occupy Wall Street protester. Twitter has refused to turn over the account information, and asked an appellate court to stay a lower court’s order.
Twitter spokeswoman Carolyn Penner declined to answer questions about the company’s subpoena policy.
A Facebook spokeswoman said the company “adheres to applicable laws” and cited company guidelines, which suggest that user content is only turned over in response to a law enforcement search warrant.
The Facebook guidelines also say that if the account was deleted, the company would no longer be able to access it. Trayvon’s account is no longer active, but it’s unclear whether it was deactivated or deleted.
“This is how you defend someone charged with second-degree murder, a charge that presumes ill will and hate,” O’Mara said. “If that’s the way they are charging it, we have to know as much as we can about everybody involved -- every state witness. We’ll do everything we can to get that out there. It’s not character assassination; it’s investigation.”
Zimmerman claims he killed the unarmed Miami Gardens teenager in an act of self defense. The Sanford Police said the evidence supported his story, but the public outcry that ensued after the Feb. 26 attack led to a special prosecutor and a charge that most legal experts say went overboard.
Former Miami-Dade prosecutor David Waksman said O’Mara may request all the information he wants — but that does not mean he will be allowed to present it at trial.
“This isn’t Judge Judy: You don’t just go up there and tell your story,” Waksman said. “What the defense lawyer wants to do is make Trayvon look like a bad guy. Whatever the rules of evidence will allow, he’ll do it.”
He said O’Mara will probably make posters “as large as the courthouse walls” from Trayvon’s more menacing Twitter photo, which showed him with a white sleeveless T-shirt and gold grills over his teeth.
While character evidence is usually inadmissible, O’Mara might be able to get it in if it shows a propensity toward violence, Waksman said.
“If Martin was a tough guy, a bad guy, that might be relevant,” Waksman said. “The defense will try to get any information that could corroborate Zimmerman’s story. Whether he can use it at trial is another matter.”