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Social media consulting becomes part of trial strategy

Bethany Krajelis
Law Bulletin staff writer

Published: July 28, 2011

With a few clicks of her mouse and some serious help from social media, the trial consultant for Casey Anthony's defense team discovered what thousands of people were thinking about the case within mere seconds of sharing their thoughts.

Whether it was bloggers talking about how the woman accused of murdering her 2-year-old daughter looked better wearing pastels or regular folks sharing their opinions about her parents in less than 140 characters on Twitter, Florida-based trial consultant Amy Singer said she utilized various forms of social media to give Anthony's lawyers an inside and almost instantaneous look into how the public was perceiving the lawyers, witnesses, evidence and of course, Anthony.

"We were getting reactions to everything," she said. "It was unbelievable to see the things people were reacting to."

Singer said she and her team of consultants started using social media to track the case when jury selection began in May. They continued to track the case throughout the trial, gathering the reactions of the more than 40,000 people who logged on to these social media sites to share their opinions about the case that captivated the nation this summer.

"It's like a focus group," Singer said, explaining that her team would analyze the bevy of blog posts, Facebook mentions, discussion forums and Tweets about the case before providing an analysis to Anthony's defense lawyers, who would then determine how, or if, the information would effect their trial strategy.

After several weeks of trial on a case that dates back to the disappearance of Caylee Anthony more than three years ago, a Florida jury found Anthony not guilty of murdering her daughter earlier this month.

While it's difficult to gauge whether Singer's work played a role in the outcome of the case, several trial consultants, lawyers and law professors say the way she applied social media to Anthony's trial marks a new phase in the social media phenomenon.

Alan Tuerkheimer, a litigation consultant with Zagnoli, McEvoy, Foley LLC in Chicago, said his firm has used social media at the jury selection stage of trial, but never used it in the way Singer did.

He said he's not sure whether Singer's approach would be useful in all trials, but it's likely to catch on in high profile cases.

"People aren't going to be tweeting about the majority of trials, but when it comes to high profile cases, I think it's going to become something more and more firms do," he said of Singer's social media strategy.

After all, Tuerkheimer said, the use of social media is not completely new to the legal profession. He said since the popularity of social media sites exploded a few years ago, it has not been uncommon for trial consultants to peek at potential jurors' Web presence to get a picture of their personalities.

"Most of the information is not useful, but if you can see how people disclose information it gives you some insight into their personality and how comfortable they are expressing their opinions," he said. "Social media has definitely changed the way [trial consultants] do our job, but it's just an additional factor that yields information to an existing body."

Tuerkheimer said the information obtained through social media sites should be taken with a grain of salt. Jurors, he said, are probably more comfortable sitting at home in their pajamas updating their Facebook pages than sharing their honest opinions with 11 other people on a jury.

"I think you have to remind yourself that it's just one other source of information, he said. "You can't blindly rely on it."

Singer agreed. She said her team of consultants combed through thousands of peoples' opinions about Anthony on dozens of social media sites to separate "the nuts from the useful information." She offered what she could and then let Anthony's lawyers determine if they would use it.

Singer said the most useful information her team gathered while tracking Anthony's case online was the public's reaction to Anthony's father, George, who allegedly had a mistress. She said the defense team ended up beefing up their questions against him on the stand, something she said may have made the jurors doubt his honesty.

J. Steven Beckett, the director of the trial advocacy program at the University of Illinois College of Law, said as "an old man," he has been amazed to see how social media has effected the legal profession over the years.

A few years ago, Beckett said he was impressed to learn that employers were using social media sites to get an idea of how potential employees presented themselves on the Web. Regardless of that, Beckett said he was still surprised to see how frequently trials are discussed on these sites.

For instance, when former Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich faced his first trial on corruption charges, Beckett said he followed a blog to get the most up-to-date coverage.

Details about his second trial, however, could be followed on Twitter, where reporters shared everything from what the governor was wearing that day to what witnesses were saying as the trial was literally taking place.

Blagojevich's attorney, Sheldon Sorosky , did not return a message seeking comment on whether the ousted governor's defense team tracked his case on social media sites. Assistant U.S. Attorney Randall Arthur Samborn, who serves as the office's public information officer, declined to comment for this story, saying that Blagojevich's case is still pending.

Now that Beckett has seen how the popularity of social media sites is making its way into trials, he said he thinks its something lawyers are going to want to use to their advantage.

"Lawyers like to keep control of everything related to their trial, their clients and their witnesses," Beckett said. "They want to keep control. And when you have something like social media becoming so popular, it becomes something they need to pay attention to."

Philip K. Anthony, chief executive officer for DecisionQuest, agreed. He said his nationwide trial consulting firm currently uses social media as a jury research tool.

Like Tuerkheimer, Anthony said trial consultants frequently look at potential jurors' Web presence. He said social media is also a great way to survey individuals on a particular matter in a relatively quick fashion.

"The Twitter tool is a good one because most jurors today, and particularly the younger jurors, no longer view the walls around the courtroom as something that is confining them," he said. "They used to go into trial and listen to the judge when he said not to read any newspapers or talk to anyone about the case. But, what has shifted today is that jurors feel quite comfortable and in fact, compelled to leave the courtroom and do all those things."

Jurors, he said, frequently go onto a company's website to do research before they hear testimony. They might look for discussion forums about the company or even ask their friends on Facebook for their take on the case that they will soon decide on.

Doing research on what sites jurors are going to and what kind of information they might find is something that Anthony, of DecisionQuest, said has become "a normal part of our practice" as trial consultants.

While his firm may not typically go as far as the trial consultants in the Casey Anthony case did, he said he doesn't doubt Singer's methods will be utilized by the nation's trial consultants in high profile cases in the near future.

Singer said more trial consultants will follow in her footsteps, especially as technology advances and the popularity of social media sites continue to grow.

"I can't believe I was the first one to do this," Singer said. "It doesn't take a genius to figure out."