Written by Roy Black
Quo Vadis1 George? Where do you want your trial? Sanford? Isn’t this the county that fired its police chief for not arresting you? And the governor replaced the state attorney to be sure you are indicted? Paranoia? No it’s true, they are after you. They are stacking the deck against you. But don’t despair yet, the system also gives you powerful weapons to fight back with.
George and his lawyers have their work cut out for them and not the least of which involves the community’s attitudes towards him. The publicity has been unrelenting, and worse, a threat of violence hangs over the trial. He has received many death threats and as the trial nears, the community will feel as if it is under siege.
The Zimmerman team must begin serious jury research. This is not a case that is intuitive. Attitudes have to be explored. Trial lawyers can’t assume their feelings are the same as the public’s. For example they may think many in Sanford are on their side and feel comforted by that. Hubris is usually a fatal error.
So how to begin? If they can afford, it a community attitude survey is a must. We did one in the Goodman case and attached it to our motion for change of venue. The survey results were astounding: 87% had a negative view of Goodman and 71% thought he was guilty. Hardly the unbiased jury pool one would want their jurors selected from.
Of course we filed an extensive motion for change of venue. You can access the motion here. Several supplements were filed as well. In addition to the survey, we documented comments from the blogs hosted by the Palm Beach Post. Here are examples of the inflammatory postings:
“Either he goes down in the courts of our land, or maybe he will be taken down by the justice of the people who are over these kinds of pos’s … no fat body guard will stop the revenge of the people!”
“I recently had jury duty, but boy would I love to be on the jury when this piece of human garbage goes before a judge. You could say I already passed judgment-but that’s ok. I hate when people think they are above the law and this jerk thinks he’s one of the chosen. People like him have no conscience-its [sic] how this event affects him not how
he destroyed lives. I would love to destroy his life like he destroyed that of the Wilson’s I believe in the death penalty but I would settle for life.”
“Your lawyers are nothing but a bunch of sneaky, lizard, slimy type that wallow in there [sic] own filth….”
“In my opinion Roy Black is scum and the worst kind of lawyer for taking this case.”
And I haven’t included the anti-Semitic comments about Mr. Goodman. The Palm Beach Post claims on their website that they monitor the postings. I can only imagine which ones they declined to post!
At the Scott Peterson trial, outside the courthouse a radio station posted a large billboard which had a telephone number for people to call in and vote “whether Peterson was a ‘man or monster.’ Peterson was pictured in an orange jailhouse jumpsuit.
I am sure that Zimmerman has or will suffer comments as least this toxic as these and probably worse. They need to be collected and presented to the court along with the community survey. If Zimmerman can’t afford a survey, or in addition to a survey, he can round up volunteers to canvas people at the mall or on Main St. We did that in the Lozano case. It at least gives you a feel for what is going on.
None of this matters unless he has a trial judge seriously interested in seeing that he gets a fair trial. In the Goodman case the Judge said in court right after we filed the motion that he had only read a third of it and complained that it was too long. I guess the more the prejudice, and the more pages needed to document it, the less likely the judge will read it. I don’t know if he got around to reading the rest but he denied the motion without convening an evidentiary hearing or even the courtesy of an oral argument. We knew then what the trial was going to be like.
The main impediment to a venue change is a trial judge who stubbornly refuses to consider the obvious evidence of prejudice. They know it will be unpopular in their jurisdiction so they don’t want to do it. It also cost more and is an inconvenience. Sometimes the price of justice is too high.
Zimmerman’s best chance of a change of venue is to emphasize the threat of violence. The courts are generally ruling that mere publicity is not enough. But the threat of violence will tip the balance, see Lozano v. State.
Does it make a difference? Lozano was convicted in Miami and after the appeal and venue change he was acquitted in Orlando. Casey Anthony picked a jury in Tampa and had it imported to Orlando and she was acquitted. I doubt that a jury picked from Orlando would have acquitted her. The infamous McDuffie cops got a change from Miami to Tampa and were acquitted. There was no chance of an acquittal in Miami. The Rodney King cops got a change of venue to Simi Valley from LA and were acquitted of state charges; then the feds charged them and tried them in downtown LA where they were convicted. So a change of venue can be critical in a high publicity case.
Lynch Mob Justice
Controversial trials, meaning unpopular defendants, have turned into sporting events. While the jury is deliberating, a huge crowd gathers in front of the courthouse with the air of a football game, or a carnival. News crews shine their spotlights on them and as the cameras pan around the crowd we get the usual cheers associated with the big game. And when the guilty verdict comes in, the crowd cheers like it was the winning touchdown. The new American spectacle reminiscent of the Roman coliseum.
A national television audience watched a huge crowd outside the Centre County Courthouse waiting for the Jerry Sandusky verdict. Here is the description of the crowd at the Scott Peterson trial as described in his appellate brief:
“The publicity continued throughout trial. A mob estimated at more than 1,000 people gathered at the courthouse to await the guilt phase verdict. After the guilty verdict was announced, the 12 jurors departing to await the beginning of the penalty phase — and decide whether Mr. Peterson would live or die — were met with wild applause and cheering.”
And it should come as no surprise that they later voted to execute Peterson.
Judges aid and abet these spectacles by refusing to move the high publicity cases. How can we expect jurors to deliver an unfavorable verdict then go back into the same community that was calling for the defendant’s head? Or be concerned about their safety or their families’ safety? These lynch mobs are an embarrassment and a symbol of our refusal to give the demonized defendant the semblance of a fair trial.
1The modern usage of this phrase comes from St. Peter. When fleeing likely crucifixion in Rome he runs into a risen Christ and Peter asks him “Quo Vadis?” Jesus says Rome, so Peter returns there only to be crucified himself. Seems an appropriate metaphor for Zimmerman.