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Why Jury Selection for George Zimmerman Is Taking So Long

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After one week of jury selection in the George Zimmerman murder trial in central Florida, how many jurors have been selected for the trial? The simple answer is none.

George Zimmerman is charged with the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Martin was shot once in the chest as he walked unarmed to a family member's home in a gated community. Zimmerman, who was serving as a neighbourhood watchman, is claiming that he killed the teenager in self-defence. He was photographed by the police with facial and head injuries after the incident.

The case attracted national attention with racial overtones and Zimmerman's delay in being arrested for six weeks led to protests led by civil rights leaders.

The judge in the George Zimmerman trial is taking extraordinary precautions to ensure that the jury selection process is conducted fairly. She has also ordered that the jury will be sequestered during the trial.

Every prospective juror summoned to the Seminole County courthouse filled out a written questionnaire about relevant features of their background. That has been followed by a lengthy screening process, where lawyers in the case have questioned every potential juror separately about the possible influence of pre-trial publicity. The questioning can be extensive. In one case a potential juror admitted to donating $20 to George Zimmerman's defence fund because Zimmerman seemed like an ''underdog'' and the ''media seemed to be biased'' against him. The prosecutor continued with a series of probing questions about the sources of the man's knowledge (including the social media) and views about the case.

In another instance, the defence asked a potential juror about her racial views on the Zimmerman case and the civil rights protests that followed it.

When a pool of 40 potential jurors is selected, a second round of questioning will begin. Ultimately, a jury of six jurors and four alternates will be chosen for the trial.

In a comparative case in Canada, the jury selection process would be fundamentally different. In highly charged murder trials with widespread publicity involving such notorious defendants as Paul Bernardo, Michael Rafferty and Robert Pickton, juries comprised of 12 jurors were chosen in a matter of a few days.

In Canada, a high profile case like George Zimmerman's would be a challenge for cause process based on the pre-trial publicity in the case. The mere fact that a potential juror was exposed to a barrage of pre-trial publicity would not necessarily lead to a finding of partiality or bias. The material issue for consideration in a challenge for cause is whether the specific publicity or notoriety of the defendant in the case could possibly destroy a potential juror's indifference.

Canadian courts have never adopted the American practice that permits the lawyers to ask intrusive questions of potential jurors. There is an underlying principle that the challenge for cause process must be equally fair to prospective jurors and the defendant.

Counsel would seek to elicit information about any members of the jury pool who were engaged in any protest, who had signed a petition or who had donated money to any fund related to the case. It is likely that they would be disqualified from serving as jurors or dismissed during the abbreviated challenge for cause process. Any potential juror would have to attest to their ability to be impartial, despite their exposure to pre-trial publicity.

Both Crown and defence would also have 20 peremptory challenges available in a murder trial that they could exercise freely to eliminate any possible juror.

Is the American system of jury selection in the George Zimmerman fairer than the Canadian system? Arguably, a compelling case can be made that it is fairer. However, it also has to be recognized that the dissemination of leaks and evidence in the Zimmerman trial and the sharp public comments of the lawyers in the case would never occur in a Canadian trial. There would be a ban on publication of evidence led at the bail hearing and preliminary hearing until the trial concluded.

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