Race relations, Florida’s self-defense law and Trayvon Martin’s attire and school suspension emerged as key issues Tuesday as lawyers in the George Zimmerman murder trial grilled jurors about the effects of publicity in the case.
It was the second day of jury selection, and lawyers questioned 10 potential jurors. Zimmerman, is accused of second-degree murder for shooting 17-year-old Trayvon last year in Sanford.
His death inflamed racial tensions in Central Florida, sparked civil rights rallies from Miami to New York and drew worldwide attention to Florida’s self-defense law. Trayvon was African American; Zimmerman is a white Hispanic.
“I wasn’t agreeing with the racial connotations,” said one prospective juror, an African American man, who said he bristled at civil rights leaders turning Trayvon’s death into racial “saber rattling.”
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Zimmerman, a self-proclaimed neighborhood watchman, killed the unarmed teen from Miami Gardens during a confrontation inside a Sanford gated community. Zimmerman claims he was forced to fire in self-defense as the teen beat his head into the ground.
The issue of race is being closely watched in the trial in Seminole County, which is mostly white. Legal observers say black jurors may be more likely to side with the prosecutors in this case.
On Tuesday, the black male — the first African American man questioned during jury selection — said he hadn’t made up his mind on Zimmerman’s guilt, unlike many friends and relatives whom he said instantly came out against the defendant.
The middle-aged man — known only by his juror number, B35, a privacy measure to make sure jurors don’t feel intimidated — pointed out that scores of black men are killed in other acts of less publicized violence. “We don’t march about that,” he said.
The man also said he watched Fox News and right-wing commentator Sean Hannity, who famously landed the first on-camera interview with Zimmerman after the February 2012 shooting.
The possible juror also criticized U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson of Miami, who once said Trayvon was “hunted down like a dog.” The man said the comment was inflammatory.
“I don’t believe he was being hunted,” the man said. “Maybe watched, but not hunted.”
Ultimately, lawyers need to agree on six jurors, plus four alternates. Jury selection is expected to last a couple of weeks.
Other jurors interviewed included a college student who gets her news via Facebook, an animal-loving woman who admitted she uses newspapers only to line the bottom of her parrot cage and an older woman who lived in Iowa when the headlines broke.
One juror questioned, a middle-aged man who gets his news from National Public Radio, said he recalled the furor over Florida’s 2005 Stand Your Ground law, which eliminated a citizen’s duty to retreat from a threat before using lethal force. But he insisted he could be fair.
Zimmerman, he said, “should not be convicted in the court of public opinion.”
Two possible jurors, both parents, said the publicity around Trayvon’s death spurred them to talk to their children about dressing appropriately so as not to be mistaken for a troublemaker. The image of Trayvon wearing a hooded sweatshirt became a highly publicized image amid the suggestion that his attire made him look suspicious that night.
“My son dresses the same way so we talked to him about it,” said one potential juror, a middle-aged father with a teenage son.
Trayvon’s past — he had been suspended from Dr. Michael M. Krop High in North Miami-Dade and sent to Sanford to stay with his father — has become public during preparation for the trial.
But much of that information will likely remain off limits as evidence, and lawyers have been pressing potential jurors to ensure they can keep the headlines out of their decision-making if they are seated on the jury.
One juror, a mother known as juror B86 who has two sons in their early 20s, said she works in a school and deals with student discipline. She suggested Trayvon might still be alive had he not been booted from school.
Prosecutor Bernardo De La Rionda asked her if she could put Trayvon’s school woes out of her mind.
“I can’t guarantee anything,” she replied.