Was Jury Selection an important part in Zimmerman's not guilty verdict?

On July 13, 2013 George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Following the nationally publicized trial, much media attention focused on the fact that the six person jury was all female and mostly white. Five of the six jurors were white. On July 17, 2013 USA Today reported that the jury consultant instrumental in helping Mr. Zimmerman's defense team pick the jury decided months in advance of the trial that a panel of women would bring the best chance for Mr. Zimmerman's acquittal. The thinking behind this theory was that women would be better listeners, less judgmental, and better able to put themselves in the position Mr. Zimmerman was in when he shot Mr. Martin.

In Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), the United States Supreme Court held that the Equal Protection Clause prohibits the Government's use of peremptory challenges - which generally permit a party to challenge prospective jurors without giving a reason - to exclude jurors on the basis of race. In J.E.B. v. Alabama ex rel. T. B., 511 U.S. 127 (1994) the Supreme Court expanded its holding in Batson to ban peremptory challenges based on gender. The Supreme Court in Batson outlined a three-step process for examining whether the Government has used peremptory challenges in violation of the Equal Protection Clause. As modified through the years, the three steps are: (I) first, a defendant must first make a prima facie (initial) showing that the Government has exercised a preemptory challenge on the basis of race or gender; (ii) second, if the defendant makes such a prima facie showing, the burden shifts to the Government to articulate a race- or gender-neutral reason for excusing the juror in question; and (iii) third, the trial court then must determine whether the defendant has carried his burden of proving purposeful discrimination. Johnson v. California, 545 U.S. 162, 168 (2005).

Florida courts have increasingly brought the State's procedure in line with Batson – except as to the first step. Melbourne v. State, 679 So. 2d 759 (Fla. 1996). That is, twenty years ago, Florida abandoned the requirement that a defendant state a prima facie case of discrimination. Melbourne, 679 So. 2d at 764 n.5 (noting that State v. Johans, 613 So. 2d 1319, 1322 (Fla. 1993) "eliminated the requirement that the opponent of the strike make a prima facie showing of racial discrimination."). While federal law "contemplates something more than simply establishing the minority status of the defendant and the exclusion of a single venire member who happens to be of the same race", see U.S. v. Abdush-Shakur, 465 F.3d 458, 470 (10th Cir. 2006), in Florida a defendant has no such burden. A simple objection with a reference to Melbourne or Batson is generally enough. State v. Whitby, 975 So. 2d 1124, 1132 (Fla. 2008) (Cantero, J., dissenting). Forty-six states now apply Batson, requiring the objecting party to establish a prima facie case of discrimination. In Whitby, 975 So. 2d 1124, the Florida Supreme Court denied review and discharged jurisdiction, declining to recede from Melbourne and join the majority of states.

Pursuant to Melbourne, Florida law provides defendants with much greater protection than federal law in preventing discriminatory jury selection practices. As a result, defendants can and often do raise Melbourne objections as a strategy, alleging racial or gender discrimination when such is not substantiated in the record. For more information regarding trial and possible trial strategies in your case contact Calvo & Calvo for a free consultation with one of our top attorneys.

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