For them, this was a tragic shooting of a teenager who happened to be black and a shooter who happened to be white.
But experts say that while the media may have overblown the race angle, the idea of racism and stereotyping is nonetheless an inescapable part of the case.
“Clearly the media wants a sensational story rather than a mundane story so they would certainly play up the racial angle,’’ said University of Florida law professor Kenneth Nunn. “But on the other hand, race has a persuasive impact on every aspect of American society and particularly the criminal justice system. Race is the... worst kept secret in America. Everyone knows it exists but few want to admit it.’’
Indeed, getting potential jurors to open up honestly about their opinions has been a key challenge.
After a week of potential juror interviews, defense attorney Mark O’Mara on Friday acknowledged the difficulty in uncovering “stealth jurors” — people who conceal their opinions or lie about their backgrounds to ensure they make a panel so they can capitalize on a case’s fame, or convict or acquit as part of a “secret agenda.”
“A stealth juror is unbelievably dangerous not only to the case ... having a juror with an agenda ... but really devastating to the system because all of a sudden we start losing faith in the system,” he told reporters.
In South Florida, the concern has been valid. In May, a Palm Beach County judge granted a new trial to polo magnate John Goodman in a DUI manslaughter case after a juror was accused of lying about his wife’s earlier arrest.
Attorneys also claimed the juror sought fame in self-publishing a 33-page memoir revealing that he drank liquor as an experiment one night during the trial to gauge how drunk Goodman might have been.
“It doesn’t happen often,” said retired Miami-Dade prosecutor Karin Kahgan, who has tried several high-profile murder cases. “But once is more than enough because the stakes in a high publicity case are even higher in the sense that the criminal justice process is more under a microscope and the idea that people are not honest about their opinions runs the risk of tainting the process.”
In Zimmerman’s case, prosecutor Bernardo De La Rionda even asked several jurors if they have a “secret agenda” or if they want to “get in the limelight.”
And defense attorneys, sensing that potential jurors are evading questions, have drilled down trying to ensure honesty.
Potential juror B-87, a middle-aged white man wearing a tan blazer, wrote on his jury questionnaire that he had come to an opinion on the case. But when repeatedly pressed, the man vacillated, saying the case “was tragic” but he hadn’t made up his mind about guilt. Another possible juror, a middle-aged black woman and longtime Sanford resident, insisted she knew virtually nothing of the case other than bits and pieces she heard at church. Defense attorney Don West continued pressing her.
“She was saying solely what she thought everyone wanted to hear just to get on the jury,” said Miami defense attorney and television legal commentator Mark Eiglarsh, who watched the questioning from the public gallery. “It was so transparent to me.”