The Lookout

Can George Zimmerman get a fair trial in Sanford?

Liz Goodwin, Yahoo News
The Lookout

The case of Florida neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman and the unarmed teen he claims he shot in self-defense has dominated 24-hour cable news shows, drawn a public statement from President Barack Obama, and sparked protests around the country. Given this (now somewhat cooling) media frenzy, will it be possible for Zimmerman's legal team to seat 12 Sanford-area jurors who have not already formed their opinion about the case?

Zimmerman's attorney Mark O'Mara seems to think not. After his client was charged in April, O'Mara said in a press conference that he doesn't think Zimmerman can get a fair trial, but hoped that the judge might throw out the case before that point. "The emotions are just running high in all of central Florida," he said. "But we'll see as we get closer to the point that we're resolving it, we don't even know if we're going to have a trial."

Since then, Zimmerman's bail has been revoked after a judge said his wife lied about their financial situation, which may damage Zimmerman's credibility. Earlier this week, O'Mara released tapes showing Zimmerman explaining to police how and why he shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in February while patrolling the neighborhood. Zimmerman says Martin attacked him and he fired in self defense, but the prosecution says Zimmerman followed Martin and then attacked him. O'Mara will soon ask a judge to dismiss the case entirely under Florida's "stand your ground" law, which says people can shoot in self defense in public places if they have a reasonable belief their lives are in danger.

[Slideshow: The case against George Zimmerman]

If the case does go to trial, which is likely to be months away, O'Mara may ask for a change of venue or for jurors to be brought in from another area. Jose Baez, who successfully defended Casey Anthony on charges she killed her child, said he expects O'Mara will ask for a change of venue. (In Anthony's case, jurors were brought in from outside Orlando and sequestered for the trial.) Even though many Americans all over the country have formed an opinion about the case because of the pervasive media coverage, the case is much more personal for someone who lives in Sanford, Baez says.

"You're not going to be able to find a jury who hasn't heard about this case, but what makes it different is that this community has seen protests, rallies, marches all kinds of activity," he says. "For a person to go back home and be continuously harassed by a neighbor [over his decision as a juror], it's much stronger than jurors who will go back home [far away]."

But Diana Tennis, a defense attorney in Orlando, tells Yahoo News she doesn't think a change of venue is a good idea. "Once you say Sanford's not for us, you could end up somewhere so much worse," Tennis says, adding that there are parts of Florida where jurors tend to favor stiff punishments for defendants.

Tennis also thinks that even though Sanford's 50,000 residents are for the most part closely following Zimmerman's case, their feelings are pretty evenly divided on his guilt or innocence. "I think...they can find a fair jury," Tennis says. "I think the public sentiment is, if not evenly divided then at least close enough that they're going to find people who have leanings one way or the other."

Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz told Fox News that a Sanford juror might not feel "safe" depending on how he votes. "I do not believe that Zimmerman could get a fair trial in the location where the alleged crime occurred," said Dershowitz, who advised OJ Simpson's legal team and says the prosecution is overcharging Zimmerman for political reasons. "For me, the major criteria of a fair trial is, could a juror who voted to acquit feel safe back in his community, feel that he wouldn't be hassled or criticized by community members."

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