Jury seated in Zimmerman case

 

dovalle@MiamiHerald.com

Sixteen months after George Zimmerman fatally shot Trayvon Martin during a brawl that drew worldwide attention and sparked racial tension, an all-female jury — all but one of whom are white — will decide if the neighborhood watchman is guilty of murder.

Lawyers will present their opening statements Monday morning. The six jurors plus four alternates were sworn in Thursday afternoon.

Each of the jurors, during the nine-day selection process, promised to be fair and impartial. The panel was chosen despite prosecutors’ unsuccessful attempts to remove two of the women. Legal experts, who believe people of color might side with prosecutors in this case, were surprised at the lack of racial diversity and split on the effects of the all-female jury. The jurors were chosen from a pool of 40 potential jurors — 24 were women, at least five were African American and at least two were Hispanic.

Coral Gables criminal defense attorney Jose Baez said he believes the jury “clearly favors the defense,” adding that women may side with Zimmerman over issues of self-defense. Even though jurors are not supposed to be dismissed for reasons of race, Baez said the defense won by limiting people of color on the panel.

“Race was the elephant in the room and they slayed it,” said Baez, who earned an acquittal in the Casey Anthony Orlando murder case.

Miami criminal defense lawyer Larry Handfield said he thought prosecutors could benefit from the jury’s gender.

“When you have a panel that is dominated by females, they bring in the parental, maternal instincts of being sympathetic toward the victim, who was a young kid in high school,” Handfield said.

Trayvon was a 17-year-old student at Dr. Michael M. Krop High in North Miami-Dade. He had been suspended from school and was visiting his father in Sanford.

The night of the shooting, Trayvon walked to a nearby store to buy candy and a drink. On the way back, Zimmerman — a neighborhood watch volunteer with a penchant for calling 911 — called police to report a suspicious person.

Prosecutors say Zimmerman “profiled” the teen, then shot him during the scuffle inside the gated community. Zimmerman claims self-defense, saying Trayvon attacked him and that he shot after the teen bashed his head into the concrete. Trayvon was African American. Zimmerman is white Hispanic.

Police in Sanford, which has a history of racial tension, did not initially arrest Zimmerman. National civil rights leaders demanded an arrest, staging rallies in Sanford and other U.S. cities.

Finally, Gov. Rick Scott appointed prosecutors from Duval County; they charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder more than six weeks after the shooting.

Although the jurors who will decide the case are known only by numbers to protect their identities, some information about them came out during two rounds of questioning in court:

•  B29: A lighter-skinned black woman, possibly Hispanic, who lived in Chicago at the time of Trayvon’s death. The woman, who works at a nursing home, told lawyers that she prefers reality shows to news and worried about her eight children.

•  B76: A middle-aged white woman, a married mother of two grown children, who remembered wondering why Trayvon was out late at night. For that reason, prosecutors sought unsuccessfully to strike her from the panel.

•  B37: A white mother of two who volunteers rescuing animals and made a point to note that she used newspapers only to line the bottom of her parrot’s cage. The woman, who once had a concealed weapons permit but let it expire, remembered that there had been “rioting” in Sanford during the uproar over Trayvon’s death.

•  B51: An older white woman, who once ran a call center, didn’t keep up with the case in the news because she has been handling the estate of a deceased uncle. She recalled thinking the case was “very sad.” When asked by lawyers during questioning how she handled disputes, she offered: “You have to listen to both sides and sometimes you have to make tough calls.”

•  E6: A church-going, unemployed, white woman in her 40s with two kids. She likes babysitting, gardening and volunteers at her children’s school. She worked in financial services. Prosecutors tried removing her from consideration because the case will require time away from her children and because she had commented about “innocent people” being put behind bars.

•  E40: A white woman in her 60s from Iowa who recently moved to Seminole County. She has a 28-year-old son, enjoys sports and served on a jury about 20 years ago.

Zimmerman was satisfied with the jury, defense attorney Mark O’Mara told reporters Thursday evening.

“He’s encouraged. He’s been waiting 15 to 16 months to clear his name,” O’Mara said. “He’s happy we got the jury in place.”

Benjamin Crump, the Martin family lawyer, said the case is about “equal justice. It’s not a black value. It's not a white value. It's an American value. With the makeup of this jury, we will find out if every American can get equal justice regardless of who is on the panel.”

Lawyers in the Zimmerman case will return to court Friday for more pretrial hearings. Judge Debra S. Nelson is expected to rule on the extent of testimony of state audio experts who listened to 911 calls in the case and suggest that Trayvon was the one depicted on the recordings screaming for help.

Read more Zimmerman Case stories from the Miami Herald

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