SANFORD -- The jury in the George Zimmerman murder trial will be sequestered for the two to four weeks needed to try the case, a Seminole Circuit judge decided Thursday as five more potential jurors were questioned and dismissed from duty.
The decision to sequester the jury should help lawyers whittle down a pool of jurors who can decide if Zimmerman is guilty of murdering 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in a Sanford gated community last year.
The announcement came during the fourth day of jury selection as lawyers interviewed a total of 10 more possible jurors, including a woman who suggested Trayvon was a pot-smoking troublemaker training to be a “street fighter,” and another man who believed God always forbids killing.
Prosecutors contend Zimmerman “profiled” Trayvon as the unarmed Miami Gardens teen walked in a gated Sanford community in February 2012, then shot him in the chest during a struggle. After Zimmerman claimed self-defense, Sanford police did not initially charge him with any crimes, prompting outrage from Trayvon’s family and supporters.
The case sparked racial and civil rights turmoil in Sanford and rallies in several U.S. cities while casting a harsh spotlight on Florida’s self-defense law. With all the pretrial publicity, lawyers are questioning some jurors individually to determine what they recall about the case and whether they can be impartial.
The process began Monday. Lawyers had initially estimated testimony during the second-degree murder case would stretch from four to six weeks.
But on Monday afternoon, one woman told lawyers that if the jury was sequestered, she would have a hard time serving. After a lengthy private discussion between the lawyers and the judge, Nelson announced the jury would be sequestered and that the trial would take two to four weeks once jury selection is completed.
That means the six jurors and four alternates will be sheltered in a hotel for the duration of the trial, under watch by court security, with limited access to relatives and media. The judge on Thursday also agreed to expand from 30 to 40 the number of potential jurors who will move on to another round of questioning. So far, according to a court spokeswoman, lawyers have agreed on 25 potential jurors to join that pool. That means they need 15 more.
The judge’s announcement came as a series of potential jurors talked to lawyers about their perceptions of Trayvon, race, media influence and, in some cases, their faith.
Earlier in the day, as Trayvon’s parents watched uncomfortably from the courtroom gallery, one potential juror suggested the slain teen was a pot smoker and aspiring “street fighter” who was “going down the wrong path.”
The woman said she believed Zimmerman was a law-abiding gun owner.
“I do believe George was protecting himself,” she said, adding that prosecutors would “have to work very hard” to convince her otherwise if she is selected for the jury.
It was unclear Thursday if the woman, who insisted she would have a “bullseye” on her back if she served on the jury, would be dismissed before a future round of questioning. Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon’s parents, left the courtroom immediately after the woman’s questioning was finished.
The details of Trayvon’s life have been part of the Zimmerman defense strategy to paint the teen as less than innocent. Last month, Zimmerman’s defense released a slew of text messages and cell phone images extracted from the teen’s phone. The messages show Trayvon as a tough-talking teen who tried to arrange the purchase of a weapon and one photo showed a marijuana leaf. The defense also claimed Trayvon had engaged in fights at school.
The Martin family has been particularly sensitive about the portrayal of Trayvon. On Wednesday after court, they asked the media to stop demonizing the teen.
Also on Thursday, lawyers interviewed four apparent Hispanic jurors in a row. Two were dismissed without questioning from defense lawyers.
One of them, an older, devout man born in Puerto Rico, said the case had been tormenting him for days, leading him to pray in the middle of the night. The man suggested Zimmerman was guilty because he broke God’s law against taking a life.
“If I go out and I shoot somebody, I’d be guilty,” the man said.
Another man told lawyers he believed Zimmerman was guilty, and that a friend had gone through a similar situation as Trayvon Martin. And one woman, who said “only God can judge,” was also escorted from court without defense questioning.