The Cautionary Instruction: How to pick a non-capital jury in Florida

Friday, 14 June 2013 06:00 AM Written by  Matt Mangino

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George Zimmerman is charged with second-degree murder in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Martin was returning to his father’s house from a convenience store when he encountered Zimmerman. According to Zimmerman, a crime watch member, Martin attacked him and he acted in self-defense. The prosecution will argue that Zimmerman profiled Martin because he was black.

Jury selection began on Monday in Seminole County, Florida. The selection of a jury is often the most critical stage of many trials, but it is especially important in this case. Jurors will be confronted with a defendant who acknowledges taking some action but argues that it was justified.

Both sides have been rigorously probing prospective jurors to learn the extent of their knowledge of the case -- specifically issues like Zimmerman’s internet defense fund and the nationwide demonstrations memorializing Martin.

The presiding judge has ordered the clerk of courts to summon a total of 500 potential jurors, many of whom won't get far before they're dismissed. Prosecutors and defense attorneys will ultimately settle on six jurors and four alternates. In Florida, 12 jurors are required only for capital criminal trials, where the defendant is facing the death penalty.

The first group of 100 potential jurors completed questionnaires about themselves and their ability to serve before they were questioned in court. Of those jurors summoned to court this week, 40 were sent home without ever being questioned by the attorneys. Another 30 were dismissed on Tuesday.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys plan to continue questioning jurors individually about pre-trial publicity until they reach 30, then move on to more traditional jury selection topics like impartiality, self-defense, race and lethal force.

Eventually, the sides will get to 21 possible jurors who will be questioned even further. Out of those 21 potential jurors, six will be chosen to decide Zimmerman’s fate. The way things are going, selecting a jury and alternates could take several weeks.

Here is a typical example of what prosecutors and defense counsel are hearing from potential jurors. Juror "B30", a 65-year-old man with hearing loss, said he recalled Martin's parents going public about their concerns over the lack of an immediate arrest last year and more recently testimony over whether voice-recognition experts should be allowed to testify at trial. "There was fault on both sides as far as I can see, two people being in the wrong place at the wrong time," he said. "Two people who instigated something that could have been avoided."

One thing missing from this case that comes up in most every other high profile case is a change of venue. Earl Ofari Hutchinson, an author and political analyst, wrote that it is no accident that Zimmerman's attorneys never asked for a change of venue. “With the racial numbers, social and economic demographics and political views of those most likely to be on his jury skewed in his favor,” Zimmerman is right where he wants to be -- the Seminole County Courthouse.

(Image: Jury consultant Robert Hirschhorn speaks to George Zimmerman, right, during the questioning of potential jurors in Seminole circuit court, in Sanford, Fla., Thursday, June 13, 2013. AP Photo/Orlando Sentinel, Jacob Langston/Pool)


Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George, P.C. He is the former district attorney of Lawrence County and just completed a six year term on the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. His weekly column on crime and punishment is syndicated by GateHouse New Service. You can read his musings on the criminal justice system at www.mattmangino.com and follow Matt on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.

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