Criminal trials are typically dignified affairs. Neckties for men and dark suits for women are the order of the day, everyone stands in respectful silence as the judge enters the courtroom, and stone-faced bailiffs ensure that nothing will disrupt the proceedings.
So it was a shock when the George Zimmerman trial began on Monday morning with a joke and a burst of profanity.
“Knock. Knock,” said Don West, the attorney who’s defending Zimmerman.
“George Zimmerman who?”
“All right, good. You’re on the jury.”
West later apologized for the joke, but he had a point: In this well-publicized case, there was little chance of finding jurors who didn’t know something—or a lot—about George Zimmerman’s fatal encounter with Trayvon Martin.
Prosecutor John Guy, who hopes to prove that Zimmerman is guilty of second-degree murder, had a shock tactic of his own: An opening statement that began with a burst of profane language rarely heard in a courtroom. Quoting from Zimmerman’s conversation with a 911 dispatcher, Guy solemnly intoned: “F—— punks. These a——-. They always get away.”
Zimmerman, 29, could get life in prison for shooting 17-year-old Trayvon Martin on February 26, 2012. Martin, an unarmed black teenager, was wearing a hoodie on a dark, rainy night on his way home from a convenience store. He was walking through the gated townhouse community where he was staying with his father’s fiancée when Zimmerman spotted him and called 911.
Much of what happened next is in dispute, but these facts are known: Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, thought Martin looked suspicious. After calling 911, Zimmerman followed Martin and fatally shot him in the chest with his 9mm handgun. Zimmerman went free for 44 days until a civil rights outcry prompted the appointment of a special prosecutor to review the case.
The trial, which is expected to last up to four weeks, has one another unusual feature: The six-member jury is all female. Five white women and one black woman, mirroring Sanford’s racial makeup, were picked from a pool of 40 candidates. (Florida requires 12 jurors only in cases involving the death penalty.) Two men and two women will serve as alternate jurors.
Court observers are intrigued by the backgrounds of the women who were chosen. Two of the jurors had recently moved to Central Florida, one from Iowa and one from Chicago. Two do volunteer animal rescue work. One juror had a prior arrest, but she said it was disposed of and she thought she was treated fairly. Two jurors have guns in their homes. Identities have been kept confidential, and the panel will be sequestered for the trial.
Although the trial has just begun, observers are already talking about its unusual features—the “knock-knock” joke, the profanity, and the all-female jury. Are more surprises in the offing? We will find out as the trial unfolds in the coming weeks.
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Jean Reynolds, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of English at Polk State College, where she taught report writing and communication skills in the criminal justice program. She is the author of seven books, including Police Talk (Pearson), co-written with the late Mary Mariani. Visit her website at www.YourPoliceWrite.com for free report writing resources. Go to www.Amazon.com for a free preview of her book The Criminal Justice Report Writing Guide for Officers. Dr. Reynolds is the police report writing expert for Law Enforcement Today.