Fatal Knowledge

Why the jury in the George Zimmerman trial should be able to live at home and read what they want.

George Zimmerman, right, arrives on the first day of his trial on June 10, 2013, in Sanford, Fla.

Pool photo by Joe Burbank/Getty Images

Would you want to be on the jury that will decide whether to convict George Zimmerman in the Florida killing of Trayvon Martin? I would—except that the practical realities of serving on this jury would probably ruin anyone’s summer.

Jury selection may take as long as two weeks. That’s a sign of how racially charged and generally fraught this case remains more than a year after Martin’s death. Judge Debra Nelson has already ruled that the jurors are supposed to remain anonymous—the media won’t be able to show their faces, and they’ll be referred to by number instead of name. She has not yet said whether she’ll sequester the jury once its members have been selected, but odds are she probably will.

She shouldn’t—or at least I hope Nelson decides against sequestration. It’s a huge burden to impose on those citizens selected to serve—weeks of living a sealed existence in a hotel, away from your family, friends, and daily routines. I’d do just about anything to avoid serving on a sequestered jury, as I’m sure most people would. That’s why legal experts worry that sequestration skews the composition of the jury by limiting who is willing to serve. It could make retirees more likely to serve than working people or parents with young children, for example.

And I’m skeptical that it’s worth the cost. As I pointed out a year ago, after the story broke of Martin’s death in a gated community in Sanford, Fla., there has been so much publicity that it’s hard to imagine the point of shielding jurors from more at this point. Plus, to be an impartial juror shouldn’t mean being an uninformed one. As the Supreme Court said in 2010 in an appeal brought by Jeffrey Skilling, Enron’s former CEO, “juror impartiality does not require ignorance,” and jurors “need not enter the box with empty heads in order to determine the facts impartially.” Justice Kennedy went further two decades ago, when he wrote, “Empirical research suggests that in the few instances when jurors have been exposed to extensive and prejudicial publicity, they are able to disregard it and base their verdict upon the evidence presented in court.” This is heartening when you think about it: Research shows that jurors can obey the instruction to set aside their preconceived notions about a case and stick to weighing the evidence presented at trial. Nelson should let the Zimmerman jurors sleep at home.

What about the racial composition of the jury? From the beginning, the debate over this shooting has been drenched in debate about racism because of some of the elements it involves: a teenage black victim, who was unarmed and wearing a hoodie when he was killed while out on a walk; a shooter who has a white father and a Peruvian mother and may have uttered a racial slur in his 911 call about the shooting; local law enforcement officials who initially decided not to press charges (a bad call that was later rectified when the governor appointed a special prosecutor). Of course, lawyers can’t object to potential jurors on the basis of race. That’s the rule from the Supreme Court set in 1986. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t still happen, as this 2010 report from the Equal Justice Initiative describes. Jury selection based on race has just become more subtle. In the Zimmerman case, it should be obvious that the jury should include African-Americans and be multiracial. Nelson will surely be watching out to make sure jurors aren’t struck because of color. We will see, though, how this plays out.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has long pointed out that the core of the Zimmerman-Martin case is the botched police investigation and the screwy nature of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. It was Stand Your Ground that confused the police into thinking that “law enforcement was PROHIBITED from” arresting Zimmerman because he said he was acting in self-defense. The Florida law, passed in 2005, gives people who think they are being threatened the right to use force—they can protect themselves without first trying to retreat, the usual legal obligation outside of one’s own home. Stand Your Ground entitles defendants such as Zimmerman to a hearing, before trial, in which a judge decides whether to dismiss the case or let the jury hear it. The relatively low standard the judge uses—did the defendant show he feared for his life by a preponderance of the evidence—is good for the defense. And most of those who have invoked Stand Your Ground have gone free, especially (dismayingly) when the victim is black, according to this analysis by the Tampa Bay Times. But Zimmerman has decided not to have a Stand Your Ground hearing. His lawyers say he can convince the jury of self-defense, straight up.

That’s got to be the key question at trial—the same question this case has raised all along. Since Zimmerman has admitted to shooting Martin, all that remains is why, and whether to believe his answer or the prosecution’s. The tantalizing piece of evidence here is the 911 call about the shooting, which includes a voice screaming for help. Is it Zimmerman’s, as his lawyers claim, or Martin, as his family has said? Voice recognition experts testified on Saturday that they can’t say for sure: Because the voice on the tape is screaming, it’s in a high registry that’s too hard to match. Nelson hasn’t ruled yet on whether to allow the jury to hear this testimony. Since it won’t settle the identity of the screamer, it may not matter much. Then again, trials often surprise us. You don’t need to be on the jury to know that.