Zimmerman: Motion for a Change of Venue

September 20, 2012

The Sixth Amendment, which is applicable to state criminal proceedings through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment provides:

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.

The Impartial Jury Clause is at issue in the Zimmerman case because of:

(1) The tsunami of outrage nationwide in reaction to State’s Attorney for Seminole County, Norm Wolfinger’s decision not to charge Zimmerman with a crime for killing Trayvon Martin;

(2) Governor Scott’s decision to replace Wolfinger with State’s Attorney Angela Corey;

(3) Wolfinger’s decision to retire;

(4) Angela Corey’s decision to charge Zimmerman with second degree murder;

(5) The firing of Chief Bill Lee of the Sanford Police Department for his handling of the investigation into Trayvon Martin’s death;

(6) The release of much of the evidence in the case to the public before trial; and

(7) the conduct and various miscues of Zimmerman, Mark O’Mara, and Zimmerman’s friend Mark Osterman, who have attempted to try the case in the media to generate sympathy and financial support for Zimmerman’s defense effort.

What we now have is an extraordinary mess in which it seems that everyone in the country, never mind Seminole County, has a strong opinion about Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence.

The question is whether it is possible for Zimmerman to get a fair trial by an impartial jury in Seminole County or anywhere else in Florida and, if not, whether and to what extent should Zimmerman’s conduct by publicizing his case, including going on the Sean Hannity Show and pouring gasoline on the fire by proclaiming that he had no regrets for killing the unarmed teen because it all happened according to “God’s Plan,” should play a role in deciding what should be done about the mess.

Before anyone attempts to answer my two questions, please consider something that I know to be true from personal experience. I have represented clients in high visibility cases where it seemed impossible that any sentient being in the state did not have a strong opinion about the guilt or innocence of my client and in each case we were able to select a jury of twelve people, plus alternates, who claimed to know very little about the case and not to have formed an opinion about the guilt or innocence of my client. That happened in the Casey Anthony case and I predict it will happen in the Zimmerman case too.

The point is there are many people who have no interest in the crime news and never read, watch or listen to it.

There are two potential solutions.

One is for the Court to grant a defense motion for a change of venue, which will likely be forthcoming soon, and follow the procedure used in the Anthony case. Pick the jury in an adjoining county, sequester them for the trial, and try the case in the Seminole County Circuit Court.

The second solution is to wait and see what happens during jury selection. Have all the prospective jurors fill out a questionnaire that asks them to write down what they’ve read, heard or seen about the case and state whether they have formed an opinion about Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence. Then you bring them in and question them individually until you are able to seat a six-person jury, plus alternates.

I favor a mixture of both options.

The Court and both parties have a common interest in doing what they can to assure a fair trial by an impartial jury. They should join together to hire a polling firm and have them design a questionnaire or series of questionnaires to poll citizens in Seminole and Orange County as well the larger urban communities in Miami, Tampa and Jacksonville. Have them tabulate the results and chart any changes over time.

The results of the poll should provide a statistically valid estimate of the probability that Zimmerman can receive a fair trial from an impartial jury in any of those communities.

Without a poll, the Court would not have a sufficient basis to make a decision.

We know from experience that jurors hate being sequestered and their rising anger can affect how they decide the case in unpredictable ways. It’s also extremely expensive. Therefore, sequestration should be avoided, if at all possible.

If the Court is going to allow the jurors to go home, home cannot be somewhere on the far side of the Moon. The poll should help select the proper venue and the best solution might involve trying the case in a distant venue rather than transporting and sequestering the jury in Sanford.

For all of these reasons, I recommend using a poll to select the venue, non-sequestration of the jury, and the use of questionnaires with individual voir dire to select the jury.


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