In Zimmerman case, potential jurors seem largely uninterested

June 13, 2013

The woman sounds middle-aged and weary of sweating the small stuff, like her perm has wilted and so what, okay? In a strained voice, she answers questions about her engagement with the world. When asked if she has read newspaper articles about the George Zimmerman case, potential juror B37 says: “Newspapers are used in the parrot’s cage.”

The court reporter, risking a misplaced apostrophe, does not clarify whether B37 has more than one parrot.

Prosecutor Bernardo de la Rionda starts to ask if B37 — one of 500 potential jurors summoned for State of Florida v. George Zimmerman — reads the newspapers before laying them —

“No,” she says firmly, and then: “I have no time to do anything other than feed my animals.”

She has “too many” animals. The parrot. Or parrots. A 15-year-old crow with one wing. Three dogs, four cats, a “coupla” lizards.

But what does she recall hearing about the case?

“Just that there was a death.”

Do you remember who?

“Trayvon Martin.”

How would you describe him?

“He was a boy of color, I believe, of teenage years.”

What did you hear about George Zimmerman?

“Just heard that he was involved in a scuffle. It was late at night. And the boy was killed.”

And what did you think about this?

“I thought it was very unfortunate that somebody died. That’s why you have a jury.”

Jury selection is really jury deselection. Attorneys don’t pick jurors. They strike them until they have, in this instance, a panel of six with four alternates.

The candidates for the jury that will decide Zimmerman’s fate are anonymous for now — just voices if you’re watching online, just normal-looking folks if you’re in Courtroom 5D of the Seminole County Criminal Justice Center — but their testimony is oddly personal and revealing. Revealing about how America views this case, or how Americans prioritize their lives. Revealing about the state of American eccentricity, maybe, or about the state of Florida.

Potential Juror B27 remembers the moment he first heard about Trayvon’s death because he was riding high after completing a one-armed pull-up at the gym, where he trains for power-lifting and arm-wrestling competitions, and the news brought him down.

“Left- or right-handed?” de la Rionda asks on Wednesday.

“Both,” says B27, a maintenance technician.

Who is this guy?

Who are any of them, really, besides our alleged peers?

From outside the courtroom, E22 sounds like Michelle Obama.

B87 sounds like he’s the guy in IT who can de-frag your computer.

From inside, E54 looks like Oliver Stone.

E6 looks like she’s had some work done on her lips.

In May, they were summoned randomly by a software algorithm from 313,000 eligible residents of Seminole County. This week they are appearing, one by one, for an unusual “pre-publicity” round of jury selection, in which attorneys probe for biases that were engendered or emboldened by the relentless media coverage in the 16 months since Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon.

Potential Juror B29 moved to the county three months ago.

Her first act was to get the satellite TV hooked up. “I need my shows,” she says Monday, referring to reality TV programs.

The efficiency of the American jury system, Mark Twain once wrote, “is only marred by the difficulty of finding 12 men every day who don’t know anything and can’t read.”

Yet it is the most democratic demonstration we have, says Randolph Jonakait, a professor at New York Law School and author of “The American Jury System.”

“That we take ordinary people off the street and ask them to decide the fate of other human beings — that’s truly remarkable,” Jonakait says. “And it says something about our belief or our faith or our willingness to use ordinary common sense in making the most important decisions people are ever going to make.”

R39, a landscaper, wrote this on his juror questionnaire: “I don’t really care about what happened.”

When pressed in court about this sentiment on Wednesday, R39 says: “I’m not a person who cares that much about other people.”

When court went into recess late Wednesday afternoon, 75 jurors had been dismissed and 20 remained in the potential pool. Once the pool reaches 40, these potential jurors will be subjected to a round of more detailed questioning that will drill down into personal matters and opinions unrelated to pretrial publicity. The judge announced Thursday that the jury would be sequestered for the duration of trial, which is expected to start next week, at the earliest, and last two to four weeks.

Through Thursday, 34 potential jurors had been questioned individually, sitting in the same cushioned chair, in front of the same congregation of media, answering the same convoluted questions from prosecutors and defense attorneys.

De la Rionda is asking B86 on Tuesday if she could disregard hearing that Trayvon had been suspended at school.

“I could try,” says B86, auburn hair tucked behind her ears.

Does “try” mean you can?

“Probably.”

“ ‘Probably’ means you’re not sure? Does it mean ‘maybe’?”

“I’m not sure. . . . I can’t guarantee anything.”

“We are inspired by the honesty of the potential jurors,” Trayvon’s family said in a statement Wednesday.

The state will be looking for African Americans and mothers, who would sympathize with the loss of a child, presumes Orlando lawyer Richard Horns­by, while the defense is looking for affluent white male homeowners who understand the desire to defend property.

And how little some jurors are saying they know about the case seems suspicious to Orlando area defense attorney Diana Tennis. There’s been “a lot more stealth volunteer jurors than you would normally see in any kind of case,” she says. You see some people in jury selections who are “horrifically uninformed, but some of these folks go way beyond uninformed into just dubious territory.”

“I don’t have cable. I don’t have Internet,” B65, a churchgoing black woman in a navy silk top, says on Tuesday. “I live my life simple.”

Most other potential jurors seem overrun by life.

E6: “I have a lot going on . . .

E40: “I’m too busy at work. I just didn’t have the time . . .

E73: “The children, the house, the dogs . . . ”

And most dismissed the media as slanted and disorienting.

B72: “It just felt like I was getting the same information. They were just telling it in different ways.”

M75: “It’s the same information over and over again, and then everyone is commenting.”

B35: “I can count on one hand the people who haven’t made up their mind yet.”

Many seem to have determined that race became an issue only after the “altercation,” which is a word that keeps coming up here.

“We only march when there’s a racial tinge,” B35, a middle-aged black man, says when asked about the protests after the shooting but before Zimmerman’s arrest. We don’t march “when it’s our own kids killing our own kids.”

Aiding the defense is Robert Hirschhorn, one of the best-known jury consultants in the country, whose list of high-profile cases include William Kennedy Smith’s rape trial in South Florida in 1991. Such consultants perform social-science research on the potential jury pool and develop “strike profiles” of individuals who would favor one side or the other, says Phoenix-based litigation consultant Dennis Elias, who adds that the ideal juror has a balance of curiosity and open-mindedness coupled with the patience to endure the long and often tedious process of trial.

“Murder’s murder, even if it’s self-defense,” Juror R39 says Wednesday.

Trayvon “was smoking pot, getting involved in guns, learning how to street fight,” says E81, who was questioned for more than an hour Thursday.

The law doesn’t guarantee anyone a jury of one’s peers.

All it guarantees is an impartial jury.

Most potential jurors thus far have testified their way to a hazy, empathetic middle ground, presenting a state of mind that is both of this world yet somehow detached from it. Which, one might argue, is the definition of impartial.

B30: “It was two people being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

E6: “What stands out in my mind is that it’s unfortunate.”

B51: “I just remember thinking, ‘This is very sad.’ ”

B37: “I think it’s an unfortunate incident that happened.”

B87: “It’s just a tragedy either way. You know?”

Dan Zak is a feature writer and general assignment reporter based in the Style section. He joined the Post in 2005, after stints as an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a city-desk reporter and obituary writer at The Buffalo News.
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