Under questioning from attorneys in the George Zimmerman murder trial, dozens of anonymous potential jurors have explained how they formed their opinions regarding the death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, on Feb. 26, 2012, in Sanford, Fla.
Among them on Thursday was arguably the most opinionated potential juror yet, Juror E-81, who, like the hundreds of others, is being kept anonymous under an order from Seminole County Circuit Court Judge Debra Nelson. E-81, a woman, had not only absorbed detailed information about the high-profile murder and the pretrial legal maneuvers, but had shaped distinct and strongly-held beliefs about it.
Under questioning, Juror E-81 told the court she believed Mr. Zimmerman, an aspiring cop and volunteer neighborhood watchman, was innocent of murdering Mr. Martin, as the state has charged.
"I think he was just defending himself," the juror said.
She cited photos and excerpts from Martin’s social media communications about pot smoking and fighting, saying the 17-year-old was training “to be a street fighter” and was “looking for a reason to fight” when Zimmerman confronted him on the rainy February night in Sanford.
Much of the information about Martin’s personal activities she cited won’t be allowed as admissible evidence in the trial, unless the prosecution opens the door for the defense to cross-examine witnesses about Martin’s character, Judge Nelson has ruled. The trial started on Monday.
Juror E-81 was the most pointed example so far of the challenges to the careful lawyerly dance around seating an open-minded panel on a case that has riveted the US for sixteen months. The process raises thorny questions about the extent to which Americans stereotype young black men and their feelings on self-defense, and defense of neighborhoods, against crime.
Each side can arbitrarily strike a total of 10 jurors, and there’s little doubt that prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda will seek to exclude E-81 from the 6-member, 4-alternate panel. When Mr. de la Rionda asked E-81 whether her mind was made up about the case, she replied, “Yes, it is. You’d have to work really hard to change my opinion."
She also highlighted another problem, given the high emotions around the case around the country. If selected, she said, she’s afraid she’d walk out of court “with a bull’s eye on my back.”
The exchange with E-81 also brought into sharp focus what lawyers on both sides are trying to glean from jurors.
“In general terms, what lawyers [on both sides] are looking for are basic attitudes toward self-defense combined with how seriously they take instructions about presumption of innocence,” says Jeffrey Abramson, a law professor at the University of Texas, in Austin. Lawyers, he says, will try to analyze “individual attitudes toward government, toward the militia movement, attitudes toward the Second Amendment, attitudes about self-defense, what papers they read, where they get their news.”
As with other high-profile trials, the search is on for those rare individuals who may have heard about the case and haven’t formed strong opinions about it, or even have not heard about the case at all. It’s possible: One juror interviewed on Thursday morning said she had only learned about the case from fellow prospective jurors on Wednesday.
“Mark Twain said the problem with the jury system is getting a group of jurors who didn’t know anything and couldn’t read, and today you’d have to add don’t watch television,” says Bob Dekle, a law professor at the University of Florida, in Gainesville.
So far, no juror has been selected out of the 500-strong jury pool.