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Tough for Zimmerman to get fair trial, defense attorneys say

NBC's Ron Allen reports on the latest in the Trayvon Martin case, if the current judge on the case will remove herself due to a conflict of interest, Zimmerman's upcoming bond hearing and what the outcome of his arraignment could be.

Given the immense pressure to arrest and try George Zimmerman for the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, defense attorneys who have worked on other high-profile cases say it will be tough for him to get a fair trial.

The public outcry against Zimmerman, 28, has been intense: More than two million people signed a petition calling for his prosecution; civil rights leaders descended on Sanford, the Florida city where unarmed teen Martin was killed; and almost-daily rallies were held demanding Zimmerman’s arrest.

“There’s no way in the world I think this case could be heard in Sanford. The emotional state there is just too volatile … I don’t think it’s an issue having to deal with media coverage as much as it is local community pressure,” said Jose Baez, the attorney who last year successfully defended Casey Anthony in Orlando, a 30-minute drive from Sanford.

Now that the legal process has begun, Zimmerman will get an opportunity to present his side of the story. But given the intense media spotlight on the case, defense attorneys say it may be hard to find a jury of his peers in this close-knit community who don’t already have an opinion about his guilt or innocence. And even if the trial is moved or jurors are brought in from elsewhere, that may not shield them from public pressure, the attorneys said.

In the trial of Casey Anthony, who was acquitted of killing her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee, jurors had to be brought in from outside Orlando to hear the case. But even though the jury was sequestered during the trial, jurors were left ostracized and some “went into hiding” when their identities were revealed after rendering their decision, Baez said.

“How can a juror feel free to vote their conscience and to place a fair vote when they know, okay, I may be safe in here because I’m sequestered, but once I go out there and once my name is made public, people are going to harass me?” he said. 

If jurors face this kind of outcry after delivering “unpopular decisions,” he said, “it may create a chilling effect where jurors are afraid to vote not guilty because of fear for public backlash. Who wants a bunch of media trucks parked outside their house asking them and harassing them as to why they made their decision?”

Zimmerman expected to take the stand in Trayvon Martin murder case

'All that's at stake'
Jeff Deen, a criminal defense lawyer and a former prosecutor who works and lives in the Sanford area, echoed Baez’ comments. He said it would be close to impossible for a jury to be selected in the city where “everybody’s six degrees from somebody.”

“There is some worry about, you know, how this is going to affect the community if you vote guilty or not guilty,” he said. “Is somebody that lives here going to be comfortable acquitting him when they know … all that’s at stake locally?”

AP Photo

Bernhard Goetz, escorted by detectives, leaves New York Police headquarters, Jan. 3, 1984, after his return from Concord, N.H., where he turned himself in and admitted to shooting four youths on a New York subway train in December.

Barry Slotnick, the New York lawyer who has taken on many high-profile defendants, including Bernhard Goetz -- a white man accused of shooting four black teens in 1984 in a case that divided the city -- said he thought Zimmerman, who is charged with second-degree murder in Martin’s death, could get a fair trial but would need a skilled attorney to weed out jurors who may have already decided his guilt.

“In trying Bernie Goetz, one of the newspapers in New York City had a headline, ‘How to get on the Goetz jury,’” he recalled, noting it outlined what they needed to do to accomplish that. “These were not people who were in favor of Bernie Goetz or anything else of that sort, but we survived it.”

Slotnick said Goetz was tried in the city and was acquitted of all charges except for possession of an illegal gun. Slotnick also recalled trying another racially-charged case in which two members of a white Jewish community allegedly beat up a black youth in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights.

He won his clients an acquittal, though he said a juror had struggled with the pressure from her community not to acquit.

“I was in Brooklyn. It was tough, and I knew that if I got any people from the Crown Heights’ area, their decision would be dictated by their race,” he said.

It remains to be seen whether race will be a factor introduced at trial, though the killing of Martin, a black youth, by Zimmerman, who is Hispanic and white, has generated a national debate about race relations.

Slotnick said a potential area of concern in selecting a jury could be African-Americans jurors who have children.

“The president of the United States related to the fact that could have been one of his kids and, you know, is that the way black Americans think? And if it is – I understand it -- but it shouldn’t interfere with the criminal justice system,” he said.

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In the end, Zimmerman may never stand trial. A judge could rule that his actions are covered under the controversial “Stand Your Ground” law, under which a citizen doesn’t have to retreat before using deadly force against an attacker. In such cases where that defense has worked, defendants are given immunity from prosecution -- effectively dismissing the case. 

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