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Quest for Zimmerman jury reveals system partial to the uninformed

George Zimmerman, right, talks with jury consultant Robert Hirschhorn on the fourth day of jury selection Thursday in Seminole County Circuit Court in Sanford.

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George Zimmerman, right, talks with jury consultant Robert Hirschhorn on the fourth day of jury selection Thursday in Seminole County Circuit Court in Sanford.

SANFORD — On the third day of jury selection for State of Florida vs. George Zimmerman, prospective juror No. 22 was working the court.

The goateed and "underemployed" painter and musician — late on his rent, of course — was saying that he had indeed heard about the night Zimmerman shot unarmed Trayvon Martin dead, but that he had maintained a neutral view of the polarizing altercation, refraining from opinion until all the facts were revealed. He had watched both MSNBC and Fox News for balance.

"I always kind of have a tendency to play devil's advocate," he said.

Judge Deborah S. Nelson stopped him.

She asked No. 22 if he had typed a comment to the Coffee Party Progressives Facebook page under a post demanding justice for Martin. She passed him a copy of the post and he studied it.

He'd made it so far — through the initial written screening for Florida's latest high-profile criminal case, through three days of waiting in the frigid courthouse, and through 30 minutes of questioning — only to be doomed by a year-old paragraph that ended with: "The Seminole County 'Justice' System needs an ENEMA... & they just MIGHT GET one!"

"Yes," he finally said.

Next, please.

Every year, more than a million Americans raise their right hands and swear to be fair and impartial, to weigh only the facts as they decide the fate of thousands of their accused peers. This, of course, is that beautifully imperfect thing we call jury duty, that "touchstone" of democracy, as Thomas Jefferson called it. It's a basic social contract of citizenship.

Sit through the dayslong jury selection of a high-profile case, though, and you get the sense that a fair and impartial jury of your peers is an elusive goal.

• • •

The court needs six jurors and four alternates to try Zimmerman.

There are 313,000 eligible jurors in predominantly white Seminole County. The court sent summonses to 500 for the case, then narrowed that group to an initial batch of 100. Those 100 got a questionnaire that hasn't been made public, but the group was again winnowed based on responses.

Then, on Monday, commenced "pretrial publicity," in which individual jury candidates were questioned about their exposure to the news.

The first potential juror told the court she knew next to nothing about the shooting of the teenager from Miami Gardens. She watched mostly game shows and court shows on television. She didn't read the newspaper. She laughed uncomfortably at all she didn't know.

Potential juror No. 2 moved to the area four months ago and could tell you everything that happened on The Real Housewives of New Jersey, her favorite show, but not much about the shooting.

"What is your source of news?" the state attorney asked.

"It's … nothing," she said.

No. 3: "I'm just not interested in the news. Too much negative things, not good things."

Pretrial publicity goes all the way back to 1807, when Thomas Jefferson charged Aaron Burr with treason for assembling a small army in Kentucky. Newspapers went wild with the story and the citizens took sides, so Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that a judge can question jurors about their preconceived notions, based on what they had read. Jurors who had already formed "strong and deep impressions" could be excused, he wrote, because they'd be less likely to consider opposing evidence.

The effect on modern high-profile cases, according to many, is that the process scrapes the busiest and civically engaged citizens from juries, leaving what critic Albert Osborn said was a jury made up of "thirteen-year-old minds."

"Do you subscribe or have an opportunity to read the Orlando Sentinel," the lawyers asked.

"I do subscribe," No. 3 said, "but it's mainly for the coupons."

At the end of the first day, the judge admonished jurors not to watch the news or read the newspaper. Didn't seem like it would be a problem.

• • •

The first potential juror who was African-American said he doesn't "do newspapers" and watches Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly on FOX News and that he is the only person who doesn't express an opinion about the Trayvon Martin shooting when his family gathers for his annual barbecue.

He says he objected to the Rev. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson "saber rattling" and to U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., who said Martin had been "hunted down like a rabid dog."

"That's not fair," he said. "We weren't there."

This could be perfectly honest testimony. He sounds sincere. But who is to know?

"The jury system puts a ban upon intelligence and honesty, and a premium upon ignorance, stupidity and perjury," wrote Mark Twain in Roughing It. "I wish to so alter it as to put a premium on intelligence and character, and close the jury box against idiots, blacklegs, and people who do not read newspapers."

Idiots and blacklegs (whatever that means) sounds a little harsh, but the disinterest in newspapers among the prospective jury members was hard to deny.

The next juror, who let the court know she had three dogs, four cats, a couple of lizards, a crow and ferrets (or did she say parrots?), gets the newspaper, but does not read it. She uses it to line the cage.

"The only time I see them is when I put them down on the floor," she said. "It's media. I'm not a big fan."

"How do you get news?" the state attorney asked.

"I don't," she said. "I let my husband deal with it."

Think about the O.J. Simpson murder case. Nobody on that jury read a newspaper. It's the ultimate proof that the jurors were ignoramuses who made the wrong decision — unless you think they made the right decision, in which case their lack of interest in current affairs didn't mean a thing.

• • •

"In the purest sense, no such thing as a fair and impartial person exists," writes lawyer and trial consultant Paul M. Lisnek in The Hidden Jury. "To be truly fair and impartial, the men and women sitting on every jury would need to leave all prior feelings, beliefs, knowledge, and personal leanings at the courthouse steps."

Yet we pretend we can find impartial people.

"If we could ask one question of every juror," Zimmerman's lawyer Mark O'Mara said, "it would be, can you be fair and impartial?"

Is that possible? Can you set aside all of your life experiences, your belief system, your preferences and dislikes, your biases? And if someone vows that they can do that, can they be trusted on a jury?

The alternative is to select jurors who aren't curious about the world around them, those closed off souls who are comfortable not seeking information. And that makes you wonder: Can a person who doesn't pay attention be trusted to deal with the evidence in a high-stakes case that could have national repercussions?

Before the 1976 high-profile trial of Joanne Chesimard, accused of murdering a police officer, a survey showed that 71 percent of the New Jersey community eligible for jury service had fixed opinions about her guilt, but just 15 percent of jurors admitted to any kind of predisposition. "This disparity suggests that some jurors lie during the voir dire," writes Seymour Wishman in Anatomy of a Jury: A System on Trial.

"I can count on one hand," said potential juror No. 6, "the people that haven't made up their mind yet."

The few who expressed opinions were rapidly dismissed.

"I don't have an actual opinion about this case, but I do have an opinion about murder," said potential juror No. 17. "Even in self-defense, murder's still murder."

Dismissed.

"It sounds like you get all of your current events from Facebook," the state attorney asks potential juror No. 9. "Is that correct?"

"Yes."

A keeper.

And on it went. There was an arm wrestler and a landscaper and a woman who got her news from church. Prospective juror No. 13 said she could "recall the phrase gated-community" and "the phrase teenager" and "that's about it." Asked if he subscribed to the Orlando Sentinel, prospective juror No. 21 laughed.

Jury selection continues Monday with a new batch of your peers.

Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@tampabay.com or (813) 310-6066.

Quest for Zimmerman jury reveals system partial to the uninformed 06/15/13 [Last modified: Monday, June 17, 2013 3:18pm]

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