Trayvon Martin case: What does each side want in a jury?

Jury selection in the Trayvon Martin case, in its third day, is now expected to last two weeks. Prosecutors, as well as lawyers for defendant George Zimmerman, are probing into prospective jurors' news habits, as well as their views about local crime.

Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/AP
Jury consultant Robert Hirschhorn (l.) and defendant George Zimmerman listen to Judge Debra Nelson in Seminole circuit court during jury selection for Zimmerman's trial, in Sanford, Fla., June 11.

Finding six jurors and four alternates to rule whether George Zimmerman murdered Trayvon Martin or killed the unarmed Florida teenager in self-defense is likely going to take a while – for good reason.

Sixteen months after the death of Trayvon, a 17-year-old returning to his dad’s house in Sanford, Fla., after buying a bag of Skittles, the trial of Mr. Zimmerman is forcing questions with which many Americans privately wrestle, including stereotyping of tough-looking young black men and attitudes about neighborhood security.

The same issues that divided America about the case – whether Zimmerman, who identifies as Hispanic, was a racially motivated vigilante or a responsible gun owner who got caught in an untenable situation while trying to safeguard a neighborhood against a crime wave – are now dogging the jury selection as the trial got under way Monday. As of Wednesday morning, 70 individuals in the 500-strong jury pool have been dismissed, and no juror has yet been seated. Expectations now are that jury selection could take two weeks. 

Given the large amount of pretrial publicity, the challenge is to find a fair jury among a pool of residents likely to have already formed distinct, if subconscious, opinions about what happened in those murky moments when Zimmerman and Trayvon fought, and where someone emitted a shriek before a single bullet felled Trayvon.

The defense, jury experts say, is probably jockeying for a paradoxical kind of juror: an older, white person with a strong bent toward “law and order” – the same kind of person that, in another case, might look skeptically upon a man who fires a gun at an unarmed teenager. Florida's Seminole County is 66 percent white and 12 percent black.

Given broad concern in the black community about Trayvon’s death and the local police department’s initial failure to charge Zimmerman, prosecutors are likely to push for at least one or two African-American jurors, though jurors cannot be excused or retained solely on the basis of their race or ethnicity.

As the selection process continues, attorneys on both sides are trying to analyze potential jurors’ attitudes toward government, guns, and self-defense, while probing about how and where jury candidates get their news.

“When you have this amount of pretrial publicity and a case where the community’s reputation itself is involved, and you combine that with racial issues in the background – or foreground – you have the perfect storm for a difficult jury selection,” says Jeffrey Abramson, a government and law professor at the University of Texas (UT), in Austin. “More important, though, than whether jurors are African-American, non-Hispanic white, or Hispanic are their starting attitudes about whether they think [the cit of] Sanford itself is under attack, whether they think there’s too much crime, and what they would do if they saw a stranger in their neighborhood. These are predictive, I think, more than race or ethnicity.”

A crucial concern for both sides is the prospect that a juror on a mission will slip through the vetting process and poison the verdict.

“The one real problem you have in situations like this is individuals with agendas,” says Bob Dekle, a law professor at the University of Florida, in Gainesville. “They’re savvy enough about the courts, they know what the correct answers are to get on the jury … [and then they exact] their own particular form of justice. If you get one juror like that, you’re sunk.”

So far, lawyers have considered potential jurors ranging from a Chicago transplant in her 30s who said she “really didn’t know anything about the case,” to a 65-year-old man who had read about recent legal arguments concerning whether voice-recognition testimony should be heard, and who noted, “There was fault on both sides, as far as I can see.”

Research about the role of race on juries ranges widely. Some studies show that all-white juries convict black defendants at a greater rate than do mixed-race juries. But other studies have come to a more nuanced conclusion, namely that the greater the role of race in a defendant’s case, the more vigilant juries become in not allowing race to become a factor in the verdict, according to Doug Keene, a jury consultant in Austin, Texas.

But UT's Mr. Abramson adds that research on racial attitudes involving Hispanics and blacks is scant compared with research on white and black juror attitudes.

The backdrop to the case – broader issues about profiling, gun laws, and how stereotypes play into neighborhood security – may be anathema to achieving what Mr. Dekle at UF calls a “semblance of justice” for Trayvon and Zimmerman. “The criminal trial system is not a vehicle for resolving sociological issues,” says Dekle.

Yet trying to extract America’s broader social problems from the facts at hand for the eventual Zimmerman jury will likely be impossible, complicating the task of attorneys on both sides as they continue Wednesday to winnow the jury pool toward a final panel.

The “doctrine of collective guilt and epidermal suspicions is what makes this case different…,” argues Jelani Cobb in The New Yorker. “George Zimmerman is on trial, but so is a set of durable fears about black men in this society.”

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