Skip the Skype Hype: Zimmerman trial fiasco offers lesson in adopting new technology

Ah, the downsides of technology. Just ask Seminole County Circuit Judge Debra Nelson. She was not amused when popups multiplied on the Skype screen in her courtroom, interrupting serious testimony in Central Florida’s summer blockbuster, the George Zimmerman trial.

Technology in the courtroom has long been a contentious issue. The judicial system historically has been slow to adopt any new technology that might be potentially intrusive. That reasoning is sound. Anything that can affect the outcome of a trial —  and therefore a defendant’s constitutionally guaranteed right to a fair trial — must be thoroughly vetted before being allowed into the courtroom.

Unfortunately, the rapid advent of communications technology in the 21st century coupled with the appeal of celebrity trials has accelerated acceptance of new and ever-more-intrusive technology into the courtroom.

That potential  bugaboo reared its ugly head last week when an attempt to have a witness testify via Skype turned the stately decorum Nelson’s courtroom into an unexpected and comical onscreen circus, in direct conflict with the tenor of the moment.

For anyone who missed it, just as prosecutors began questioning the witness, a pop up window from an outside caller filled part of the screen. No sooner had the witness cut off the call and clear the screen when another popped up. Soon the screen had two callers, then three, then four. Suffice it to say, the witness’ testimony and how it was viewed by jurors must have been impacted by the technology. 

Public relations professionals often are early adapters of new communications tools. We constantly are looking for new and creative ways to get our clients’ messages across to our target audiences. But we should take a lesson from the state’s Skype disaster in the Zimmerman trial. Before we get worked up about the next new Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, let’s vet the technology, counsel our clients on the potential down sides and think it through from every possible angle.

 Robert Perez is vice president at CBR.

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