Race, faith and honesty shape Zimmerman jury selection

06/15/2013 3:43 PM

06/15/2013 6:07 PM

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.

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.”

The woman did not move on to the next round of questioning, but she was only dismissed after telling the judge that missing work for the two to four weeks estimated for the trial would be an extreme financial hardship.

The “underemployed” musician, potential juror E-87, told the lawyers that he shied away from debate on the case and only wondered why it took so long to arrest Zimmerman.

But then Seminole Circuit Judge Debra S. Nelson showed him a printout of a March 2012 Facebook post in which he called the Sanford police “corrupt” and “stonewalling.” He admitted to authoring the post. The judge dismissed him but he returned to the courthouse on Friday in apparent attempt to talk to other prospective jurors. Police escorted him off the property.

The lawyers will have to continue to probe throughout the process, Eiglarsh said: “Far too many people are smart enough to not write it down and carry those deeply rooted feelings and keep it to themselves.”

In the weeks after the shooting, marches were held in Sanford, led by national civil rights leaders including the Rev. Al Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. But it was local pastors, of varying ethnicities and denominations, who were dispatched into the community to help ease racial tension using faith, in part, to lead to healing.

A coalition was formed, Sanford Pastors Connecting, that held prayer services and discussions about race relations. Pastors will also be present in the courtroom gallery and outside as the trial progresses.

In court, lawyers have consistently asked potential jurors whether they have heard about the case in church. Some said the clergy asked for prayers for both families, and one woman recalled seeing people wearing shirts featuring images of Trayvon.

“Questions about whether a person believes in God provide insight into whether they feel comfortable judging another, but they also give insight into a person’s general political leanings,’’ said University of Miami law professor Tamara Lave, adding that the defense will likely prefer conservative Christian.

Several have opened up about faith shaping their views on killing.

“Only God can judge,” said one Hispanic woman, who was dismissed.

Another man, the older Puerto Rican, spoke softly and hesitantly but was firm in his belief that “God’s law” forbids killing. He agreed with the concept of self-defense but couldn’t reconcile the two.

He admitted the case has kept him up at night: “I get up 3, 4 a.m. get on my knees and pray for the families.’’

He, too, was dismissed.

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