The Chinese Dissident, George Zimmerman, Bernhard Goetz, and Jury Selection

It happens time again like clockwork. An item appears in the press, and the facts behind the story are not clear. And yet people leap up to take passionate stands on the issue. Since the desire of some people to leap to conclusions is also important for jury selection, a short look at three high-profile incidents is worth exploring.

Item 1 comes from 1984 when white New Yorker Bernhard Goetz is approached by four black teens on the subway asking for money, while one of them wields a screwdriver. (The wielding of screwdrivers as a threat was an item in the press, not an actual fact of what happened.)  Goetz whips out a revolver and guns them down, seriously injuring all four. In a high-profile attempted murder case he asserted self-defense in an attempted mugging. The four teens claimed they were panhandling. Goetz was acquitted of all charges except the one for an unlicensed handgun.

But the one thing that really stands out in my mind 28 years later are the television images of the protesters outside the courthouse. Some screaming he was a racist vigilante that should be found guilty and some screaming he was merely defending himself and should be acquitted. These protesters shared things in common, besides the screaming: None of them actually saw what happened and none of them were listening to the evidence in the courtroom. They found their opinions based on what was already in their hearts and the information they cherry-picked from conflicting news accounts — some not even accurate, like the screwdrivers which the shooting victims had in their possession, but did not use in this incident.

Fast forward to Item 2, the shooting death of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman. In an eerie flashback to Goetz, we see people once again vaulting their way to opinions based on incomplete stories in the press. People take passionate sides on an incident where they are privvy to, at best, fragmented facts.

And right on the heels of Item 2, we go to today’s story of Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng who fled  house arrest to take refuge in the U.S. embassy. After the diplomatic two-step he was released with various promises, including staying in China safely. But right after his release into a hospital came stories that he wanted to leave China.

Once again we will see people leaping to take sides, this time in the political arena where spin is more important than facts. Because facts, in this case, are largely in the secretive hands of the diplomats involved. But that will not stop the leap of faith to criticism (or support) for the actions of the diplomats.

We see people like this in our everyday lives, the types that form opinions based on headlines instead of facts. Identifying such people in the speed-work of jury selection is the hard part, because these are the people who will decide cases before the facts are all in.

I have no easy answers as to how to accomplish that, as often we are left with just minutes per juror. But the time-tested advice of many to ask open-ended questions is one way to help ferret out the attitudes. Asking people “How do you feel about …” is more effective in eliciting valuable information than trying to indoctrinate them by asking them to agree/disagree with certain points. The more people talk, the better chance they will reveal something about their opinions and attitudes that might actually be useful in determining if they can sit fairly.

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2 Responses Leave a comment

  • Rich Newsome 2012.5.5 at 00:47 | Quote

    Well said. Your post goes to the core of why lawyers and our justice system matter. Facts must be discovered and decided by an impartial judge or jury. Unless parties have good lawyers that can’t happen.

    It takes guts for a lawyer to represent a hated client like Goetz or Zimmerman. Especially when passions are running high and the national spotlight is shining on the case involving a hated client. Sometimes this is what differentiates the great lawyers from the rest — think John Adams with the Boston massacre or Clarence Darrow representing the socialist Eugene Debs. There are of course many more.

    Fast forward to Trayvon Martin. I’m a lawyer in Orlando and know that it must have taken some serious stones for Mark O’Meara to step up and defend Zimmerman. O’Meara has children. Passions are running high. Taking that client in our town was no joke.

    But in a case like Zimmerman’s, so very much more than with a ‘normal’ case, having a good lawyer is essential to justice. To cut through the passion, develop the facts, and give the client a fair shake.

  • CLH 2012.5.6 at 03:30 | Quote

    I am really, truly, and deeply disgusted with the media. I have my own experience in dealing with a semi-high profile case, involving my sister, who was a minor at the time. The fact that she was a minor didn’t stop her name, photo, address, school, and other details being leaked to the press (thank you, FT. Worth Star Telegram, Dallas Morning News). My parents had to sell their home and move to dodge them. (And pay legal fees, perhaps). And the press attention was, IMHO, the primary cause of an ADA lying and grandstanding (Mr. Jay Lapham), a NRHPD officer commiting perjury on the stand, and a Judge throwing things in the courtroom durying voir dire because they went through four different pools before the case was plead. (Note- these events are as related to me by my relatives, I was out of the country at the time).
    Needless to say, I’m not the most objective cric of the media. But it seems it’s a feature, not a bug, and one that I don’t see any way to reverse. The impact on jury and jury selection is horrible. At least, in my family’s ordeal, as opposed to Zimmerman’s, we didn’t have THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES polluting the jury process by condemning a man who had yet to face trial by jury. Thank god my sister never had to face that.

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