SANFORD -- One African-American father bristled at media stories pushing “racial connotations” and civil rights leaders’ “saber rattling” in the Trayvon Martin slaying.
Another potential juror, a white, middle-aged, goateed musician, seemed impartial, at least until confronted with his caustic Facebook rant decrying the local justice system.
And a devout, elderly, Puerto Rican man nervously admitted to lawyers that the case kept him up at night, and insisted that God’s law prohibited killing no matter what.
The stories of these Seminole County citizens highlight some of the major themes — race, candor and faith — that have emerged as lawyers in a Central Florida courtroom try to find six potential jurors unswayed by the vast media coverage in the George Zimmerman murder trial over the past 16 months.
The minefield of issues also reveals how publicity has shaped perceptions in the county where residents will be called upon to judge Zimmerman in the killing of the 17-year-old Miami Gardens student.
Zimmerman is charged with second-degree murder. Prosecutors say he “profiled” the teen, who was in Sanford with his father after his suspension from Dr. Michael M. Krop High in North Miami-Dade. On a rainy February evening last year, Trayvon went to a convenience store to buy Skittles and a drink, and then began walking back to the gated community where he was staying.
Zimmerman, 29, a self-appointed neighborhood watchman who lived in the neighborhood, called 911 to report “a suspicious person,” muttering to a 911 operator that “these punks always get away.”
A violent struggle ensued. Zimmerman, whose face and head appeared injured in the brawl, fatally shot Trayvon once in the chest.
Zimmerman claimed self-defense. Sanford police, citing Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, initially did not arrest him, leading to a media firestorm as Trayvon’s family and supporters rallied for an arrest in Sanford. Forty-four days after the shooting, Zimmerman was arrested.
Since then, the media interest has been intense, with a sea of television news trucks parked outside the Seminole County criminal courthouse for hearings and jury selection. For lawyers on the case, the coverage has meant they must grill potential jurors to make sure they can set aside the media chatter.
Juror after juror said that the idea of race as a key issue in the case — Trayvon was African American, Zimmerman is a white Hispanic — was a creation of sensationalistic media and national civil rights organizations that descended upon the small town last year for marches and rallies. “They were trying to make this about race so I just changed the channel. I am a fact-finder, a research buff. I have to get my information together before I say anything,” said potential juror K-95, a white, middle-aged mother of two and a full-time student. Names of jurors are being kept secret to protect them from unwanted attention or pressure.
K-95 said she believed the demonstrations in favor of arresting George Zimmerman were to “just bring commotion.”
Another woman fretted that media-driven racial strife would scare people from attending an arts festival in Sanford. The African-American father, who owns properties and vending machines in town, said he had argued with friends who jumped to condemn Zimmerman.