The whole country has been abuzz for quite some time now about George Zimmerman’s shooting of Trayvon Martin. As the story goes, Trayvon Martin, a black, 17-year-old boy, was walking home from the store with some iced tea and Skittles. He was wearing a hoodie because it was raining. George Zimmerman (white-Hispanic) that night saw Martin and called the non-emergency police line to report Martin, who “looked suspicious.” The operator told Zimmerman not to go after Martin, but Zimmerman apparently followed him anyway. The prosecution alleges that during their confrontation, Martin attacked Zimmerman, and Zimmerman fired his gun in self defense. The defense, on the other hand, will try to prove that Zimmerman shot Martin without provocation and because he was black.
When a case goes to trial, the judge and attorneys must go through a jury selection process known as voir dire. Both sides and the judge must interview each potential juror and settle on a jury that is fair and impartial. In a traditional case, the jurors selected could not have any prior knowledge of the case at hand. Zimmerman’s case, however, is such a high profile case that this requirement would be almost impossible to fulfill, even though the final jury would be very small — six jurors and four alternates. The media has extracted every juicy detail out of this case and plastered each detail on bright neon billboards. They have spread far and wide the news about outraged protests marching in honor of Trayvon Martin and against racial profiling. They have released an inaccurate copy of the audio clip of Zimmerman’s phone call to the police station. They have exposed Zimmerman’s sordid history of domestic abuse and molestation. But no media publication can tell the whole story, and every news story is published with some (often unintentional) bias. Many prospective jurors may have already made up their minds about the case.
But just because most people know a thing or two about the Zimmerman case doesn’t mean that jury selection is impossible. The Zimmerman case, after all, is not the only high profile trial to have ever existed. Judge Casper in the high profile “Whitey” Bulger case decided to address this problem by focusing on whether people could make up their minds about Bulger’s innocence or guilt based only on the evidence presented to them in court. Potential jurors had to prove that they could set aside their previous knowledge and only work with the evidence at hand.
Racial prejudice, too, is an extremely important factor in this case. One of the key issues to prove in this case is whether race was one of Zimmerman’s primary motivations in shooting Martin. Aside from that, the simple truth is that white Americans will identify more with Zimmerman than with Martin. A study conducted at Duke University in 2012 showed that, without black jurors in the pool, black defendants are 84% likely to be convicted, while white defendants are only 66% likely. When there was even one black juror, however, the percentage difference immediately became insignificant. Seventy-one percent of blacks were likely to be convicted and 73% of whites were likely to be convicted. In order to temper the prejudice that still goes on in America’s criminal courts today, there should be at least one black juror in Zimmerman’s trial.
Yet the question remains, what will the jury look like? Out of the pool of 500 prospective jurors, will there be black jurors who ultimately get to sit on the jury for this case? The answer to this question is not so simple. The prosecution will certainly be fighting for black representation in the jury, while the defense will be fighting for just the opposite. In the jury selection process, neither the prosecution nor the defense will get the final say in who sits on the jury. They may each eliminate three prospective jurors from the pool, as long as they can show that these eliminations are not based on race, gender, or religion. Aside from these three eliminations, each side can submit an unlimited number of formal requests to eliminate other prospective jurors from the pool. The judge will decide to grant or reject each formal request based on whether he thinks each juror is capable of impartially judging the case. Thus the makeup of the jury will ultimately be in the hands of the judge.