Thursday, June 16, 2011

NACDL's 1st Annual West Coast White Collar Conference, “Turning The Tables On The Government” – “Twitter, Facebook & Google in the Courtroom: High Profile Defense in Real Time,” Thursday, June 16, 2011

Guest Blogger: Darin Thompson, Assistant Federal Public Defender, Office of the Federal Public Defender (Cleveland,OH)

The seminar opened with a discussion of the intersection between the internet (especially so-called “social media”) and the courtroom. The discussion was moderated by Gail Shifman, and the panel included Leslie R. Caldwell, Rusty Hardin, Dennis P. Riordan, and Allen J. Ruby.

The panel started by discussing cases with intense media scrutiny. High profile cases can arise due to the notoriety of the client, as was the case with Mr. Ruby’s former client Barry Bonds. But as Ms. Shifman noted, any kind of case or defendant can become notorious, as the glare of the media spotlight can be prompted by the facts of the case.  The skills discussed can be required by cases in any criminal defense practice.

Mr. Hardin stressed determining early in the case to what extent the client’s reputation in the community is especially important, i.e., a celebrity or politician, and if so, react more proactively in media response. He stressed that the storyline of the case for the media will be set very early, perhaps in the first 36 hours, and will be repeated as the media updates the story.

Mr. Ruby spoke about a client’s concerns when under the spotlight: a strategy that repairs damage to reputation, to the extent possible. The internet has changed the game in many ways, but one is that it never forgets: every news story remains preserved for future searches, making “weathering the storm” less viable of a strategy than in years past.

Mr. Riordan discussed picking potential media outlets to suit your strategy: not every client and case will benefit from a discussion with Nancy Grace or her ilk, but some will.  Different kinds of print media and bloggers are well suited to other kinds of cases.

Multiple panelists referenced the Duke rape case as one of the finest examples of excellence in media strategy. The choice of media, themes and messengers were all lauded.

Where reporters are pressing attorneys for comments, but public comments would not be beneficial (i.e., are part of the media strategy), off-the-record or background comments to the press may be useful, either to “hold them at bay” or to begin to influence the media coverage of a case. Where attorneys are gagged not by strategy, but by court order, motions can be drafted to convey the client’s position.

Another point stressed by multiple panelists was that the jury will remember what the lawyers say, and therefore attorneys should be careful before they make specific factual assertions in the press.

The panel discussion turned to specific social media issues. Use of social media research on witnesses or jurors was discussed, and it was noted that the use of third persons to surreptitiously access Facebook pages has been repeatedly characterized as unethical in numerous bar opinions.

Jury control in the age of social media and internet saturation was discussed. All panelists agreed that ordinary jury admonitions on these topics are seemingly “not processed” by jurors: it is simply unfathomable to not use the internet. Suggestions included requesting Facebook and Twitter information from prospective jurors (perhaps being given only to the court), or requesting the strongest possible judicial warnings to jurors.

(dt)

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