SANFORD, Florida (Reuters) - A white man with a chest-length gray beard wrote in a questionnaire for prospective jurors that he could keep an open mind about George Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence but he failed to mention the $20 donation he made to the murder defendant’s legal fund.
The donation came to light in open court Monday under questioning by state prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda.
“Don’t you have a stake in this already?” Rionda asked the man.
Lawyers expect most prospective jurors to know something about the case, which received blanket news coverage when police in 2012 initially declined to arrest Zimmerman, 29, for fatally shooting an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, at a gated community in the central Florida town of Sanford.
“We don’t want people who sit under rocks. We want people who are at least engaged,” defense lawyer Mark O‘Mara told a potential juror.
As jury selection threatens to take up a second full week, the revelation about the bearded man’s donation demonstrates in an unusually egregious way why the process takes so long.
Zimmerman faces life in prison if found guilty of second-degree murder. He says he killed Martin, 17, in self-defense during a confrontation at the condominium where he was a neighborhood watch volunteer. The shooting ignited protests and national debate about race, guns, equal justice before the law.
Lawyers are looking for prospective jurors who can be fair and impartial despite what they know or believe, and root out the occasional “stealth juror” with a hidden agenda, typically spending about 30 minutes grilling each one.
Most lapses by prospective jurors appear unintentional. “You don’t just ask a juror what’s in their immediate RAM, their random-access memory. You really want to look into their ROM (read-only memory), which is memory that they have,” said O‘Mara, making a computer analogy to information available for immediate use versus information stored away.
A more typical example is a middle-aged white man in a gray business suit vetted Monday morning. He told lawyers that he knew little about the events leading to Zimmerman’s trial.
“Someone shot,” he said. “A big brouhaha in Sanford.”
Over the next 30 minutes, the man disclosed many more details about the case dislodged from his memory under sometimes repetitive questioning and prodding by prosecutors and defense lawyers.
“The proof is in the pudding,” O‘Mara told Reuters. “Sometimes when we have asked questions in different ways and been able to drill into jurors’ memories a little bit, they did remember stuff or have a knowledge of this case that didn’t just come out in the first five or 10 minutes.”
Lawyers try to leave nothing to chance, checking out potential jurors before they get in court. Last week, prospective juror Jerry Counelis, 56, of Lake Mary was dismissed after defense lawyers produced a posting he made on Facebook expressing strong opinions about the case after he said in court he remained open-minded.
Counelis, a self-described under-employed musician, was slapped with a trespass warning after he returned to the jury assembly room on Friday complaining about his privacy and treatment, according to the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office report. Counelis was told to stay away from the courthouse until the trial ends.
“Thank God that was uncovered,” O‘Mara said. “He might actually have been attempting to get to some of the jurors.”
After the lawyers agree on 40 prospective jurors who can be impartial despite the extensive publicity surrounding the case, a second round of vetting will begin on other issues, potentially concerning police, guns, race, vigilantes and neighborhood watch programs.
Editing by David Adams and Bill Trott