The State of Florida v. George Zimmerman second degree murder trial was one of the most controversial court cases of our time. George Zimmerman, a then 28-year-old man of Hispanic descent, shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin on February 26, 2012 (infoplease). Although race was not blatantly being aimed at as a central theme of the trial, the trial and situation themselves promoted much discussion in society about stereotypes and racism.
Because this was such a heated trial, Florida Circuit Judge Debra Nelson made multiple decisions to strive to make the trial as fair for all of those involved and accessible to the public. There were many avenues she could have taken to achieve these objectives and I argue that she took the appropriate, fair steps to do so.
First, despite requests from the prosecution of the case to seal court records and close hearings of the trial, Nelson chose to keep the court open, citing her personal belief in open courts. This allowed cameras to be present in the court room and reporters allowed inside who could then relay information to the public. These two factors alone fostered the opportunity for this trial and its proceedings to be publicly discussed, and they certainly played a large role because the entirety of the trial was broadcast on news stations for people to watch. Citizens could then open the events of the courtroom and other ideas about the trial up for debate, and this discussion was productive for society. We should be able to discuss issues of race, stereotypes and laws in a democracy and evaluate elected officials such as judges.
Next, the prosecution and defense had the opportunity to take part in voir dire, a process in which they intensely question potential jury members in order to prevent bias in the deliberation and verdict. This decision was an obvious one due to the fact that this case was highly controversial in many areas. Representatives asked jurors questions regarding their personal beliefs on topics such as race, gun laws and prior knowledge of the case, and the process led to the selection of six female jurors who were to remain anonymous to decide the fate or Zimmerman.
The most important decision Nelson made was the one to sequester the jury, which means that the jury must remain isolated for the duration of the trial in a further attempt to keep their opinions of the case neutral and focused strictly on what occurs in the court room. The six women stayed in a Mariott hotel in Lake Marry, Fla., for the 22-day duration of the trial and were closely monitored by court deputies throughout to ensure they did not receive any outside information regarding the Zimmerman case. They each had an individual room yet hardly got any privacy and spent much of their time together – disallowed to deliberate upon the trial, of course. Television, mail, reading, internet and more were all screened by deputies and visitors were asked to sign stating that they would not discuss the case (DeLuca, Rafferty).
Sequestering the jury for this trial was an excellent choice because of how controversial and widely-publicized the case became. The jurors could not have escaped exposure to it if they had strived to in their normal routines. Nearly every news station was constantly covering and analyzing every aspect of the case, including witnesses and Zimmerman’s choices, and broader questions of racial stereotypes, gun control perspectives and other issues never ceased to be discussed. In addition, there were many protests and gatherings surrounding the case that could have swayed opinions and altered deliberation. By being sequestered, the jury did not have the opportunity to be exposed to these things and had no idea how huge the trial had become in society.
DeLuca, Matthew. Rafferty, Andrew. “Sequestered Zimmerman jurors got mani-pedis, went bowling, saw movies.” NBC News. October 18, 2013. http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/07/17/19520580-sequestered-zimmerman-jurors-got-mani-pedis-went-bowling-saw-movies