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Rulings push jury selection in Trayvon Martin case into second week

Attorney Natalie Jackson talks to Tracy Martin, father of Trayvon Martin, in Seminole circuit court during the fourth day of jury selection
Attorney Natalie Jackson talks to Tracy Martin, father of Trayvon Martin, in Seminole circuit court during the fourth day of jury selection

By Barbara Liston

SANFORD, Florida (Reuters) - A judge's decision to sequester jurors for the murder trial of a Florida neighborhood watchman who fatally shot an unarmed black teenager in 2012 will slow an already painstaking selection process to find impartial minds amid saturation media coverage.

Jury selection in the racially charged case of teenager Trayvon Martin is headed into a second week as prosecutors and defense lawyers on Friday worked to cope with the judge's sequester order and another decision to expand the pool of potential jurors.

While it will make jury selection more complicated, lawyers on both sides say they are happy with the decision to isolate jurors during testimony and deliberations.

"I think it helps with making sure that the jury can focus solely on the evidence that comes from the trial," said Benjamin Crump, the lawyer for the Martin family.

Despite the slow progress and the high dismissal rate of prospective jurors, both sides appear confident an unbiased jury can be seated locally, despite the controversy and news coverage generated by the case.

"It's going well, we're making progress," said Mark O'Mara, attorney for George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who killed Martin in February 2012. "I think jurors for the most part are being honest and straight forward."

The search for six jurors and four alternates began Monday and it remains unclear when jurors will be sworn in.

Five potential jurors were excused on Thursday on grounds of hardship shortly after the judge announced her sequester decision.

Once a jury is seated, it will hear about Zimmerman's fatal confrontation with Martin in Zimmerman's gated community. Zimmerman, 29, who is charged with second-degree murder, has said he became suspicious of Martin, 17, and shot him in self-defense and in accordance with Florida's stand-your-ground law. Zimmerman faces possible life imprisonment if convicted.

NO PHONE, NO INTERNET

The sequester order by Circuit Court Judge Debra Nelson on Thursday means jurors will be confined to a hotel, without access to cellphones, Internet and television news throughout the trial, which is expected to last two to four weeks.

Sequestered juries generally are required to dine together and TV access may be limited to pay-per-view only in their rooms, excluding even major sporting events. Jurors are usually allowed to pay essential bills online.

"The whole purpose is to isolate you from the world. They put you in a bubble," said David Weinstein, a former state prosecutor in Miami with the law firm Clarke Silverglate, who is not involved in the trial.

He said some potential jurors "won't like it and they'll do anything to get off the jury. They are going to start dropping like flies."

The case drew intense scrutiny and ignited protests when police initially declined to arrest Zimmerman, a light-skinned Hispanic, after he shot and killed Martin, 17, during a confrontation in a gated community in Sanford.

Potential jurors are being grilled about their TV news-watching habits and exposure to commentary by the media, friends and family about the case.

Nelson agreed to allow lawyers to select a pool of 40 potential jurors, up from 30, for a second phase of questioning. So far, only 28 potential jurors have been selected from a pool of 500 in a first round of questioning about the impact of pre-trial publicity.

The second round of questioning allows lawyers to explore issues relating to the case, such as Florida's gun laws, and racial profiling, and could take several more days to complete.

(Writing and editing by David Adams, Grant McCool and Bill Trott)

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