Jury Selection in the George Zimmerman Trial: Sanford Pastors Connecting

These past two days, I have sat in on the afternoon sessions of the George Zimmerman trial. This week the focus in the court room is on jury selection.

Pastor Joel Hunter at George Zimmerman Trial

My involvement as a pastoral observer is by invitation of Mr. Thomas Battles from the United States Justice Department, Reconciliation Division. Prior to this case, I actually was unaware that the Justice Department had such a division. My understanding is that the agents in this division are not so much involved in law enforcement and investigations, but in drawing along side a community where there is a high potential for, or occasion of, social unrest.  They are seeking public peace and resolution of division, in other words, peacemaking.

Personally speaking, I am a little wary of government involvement in church opinions and activities. However, to this point I have never been asked to say or do anything which would violate my Christian call. On the contrary, we are being invited by the governing officials, both local and national, to do the very thing we are eager to do, and that is being servants of the ministry of reconciliation in our community. Pastors along with all Christians are called to a ministry of reconciliation through the Gospel. As Jesus taught us, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

The agents from the Justice Department have facilitated several informational meetings providing the pastors of the Sanford/Seminole County community with direct information from the law enforcement officials of the Seminole County Sheriff’s Department, the Sanford Police Department, the Sanford City Staff and the Mayor. The meetings have been helpful to the clergy by clarifying the legal process related to this case.

In these meetings, there has also been the desire to facilitate a healthy dialogue with the clergy of Sanford and the city officials in order to constructively address community concerns even beyond the particulars of this case. The clergy represent diverse perspectives and backgrounds, large and small congregations, differing denominational and non-denominational affiliations. The clergy in the group are diverse racially and ethnically. Perhaps more than any other group in the community, we have the ability to bridge socio-economic, racial and political divides and seek true unity. As a group, we are calling ourselves Sanford Pastors Connecting.

Many of these clergy including myself have also been meeting and working together outside the official Justice Department group purposefully seeking spiritual renewal and reconciliation in our community. Our common desire is to continue to build a stronger Christian community and witness in Seminole County long after this trial has faded from public attention.

The George Zimmerman trial is obviously under intense scrutiny both within and outside the Sanford/Seminole County community. The hope for the clergy participation is to provide a prayerful presence for all who are involved in the case and to be an encouragement and source of support for the larger community.  Many of the employees of the court have already personally expressed gratitude for our presence and support.

In the courtroom, there is substantial reserved seating for the media. In fact, five of the seven rows on the defense side of the court room are reserved seating for the media–the first two rows being reserved for the Zimmerman family and their legal representation. On the prosecution side, the first row is reserved for the prosecuting attorneys and the second for the Martin family. The public is provided seats in the remaining rows behind the Martin family. This public section is where you will see the clergy sitting as the case unfolds.

Pastor Joel Hunter at George Zimmerman Trial

Pastor Joel Hunter at George Zimmerman Trial. The Sanford Pastors Connecting will be sitting in the Public seating located on the prosecutors side. There are four or five rows of seating reserved for the public directly behind the two rows reserved for the Prosecution legal team and the Martin Family.

As pastors, we have consistently offered prayer with one another, for George Zimmerman, for the Martin family and for the Zimmerman family. We have prayed for the law enforcement, for the court officials and for the attorneys. We have prayed for those working in the media. And we have been especially concerned in our prayers for the well-being, peace and support of our community as it comes under national attention. We must continue to live together long after the outside spotlight leaves our community.

As I have sat through two days of the jury selection, I am very mindful of the individuals who have been asked to serve as jurors. The attorneys from both sides are indicating that the trial could take up to one month. This is a tremendous sacrifice for anyone, but for some it would represent a major financial challenge and sacrifice. When a potential juror or group of jurors enters and leaves the courtroom, etiquette calls for all to stand out of respect for them. They do deserve the community’s respect.

I heard many perspectives and concerns of the community by listening to the juror’s answers. Some were clearly concerned about the mass demonstrations in Sanford; one young man called them “rants and riots”, another called it a “circus”, others were not so concerned and saw it as an expression of free speech. More than one expressed sadness at the events of the case itself. One juror, when asked to sum up the case in three points said, “A young man lost his life; another man is fighting for his life; and no one is a winner.”

Often, it seemed to me that both the jurors and the attorneys were putting the media on trial today. There were many questions related to media bias and misinformation in the media, such as their publishing earlier photos of Trayvon Martin as a younger boy compared to his current age.  The media initially stated that George Zimmerman had no injuries, and later reported that he did. One juror indicated that such misreporting led to wrong opinions at first. Some were asked whether it seemed that the media was “taking sides”.

Media Side of the Gallery at Zimmerman Trial

The defense side of the gallery at the George Zimmerman Trial. There is no public seating on this side as the rows are entirely reserved for members of the press save two rows for the Zimmerman family and the defendant’s legal team.

More than one juror indicated that they “tuned out” the media coverage or treated the news with certain skepticism, with “a grain of salt”. Many expressed frustration with excessive media coverage of this case, and their promotion of negativity.  One juror questioned, “How long is the media going to avalanche us with this?”

I have been impressed by the expressions of commitment on the part of potential jurors for their willingness to serve, regarding it as a civic responsibility in spite of the challenges. There is a motion being considered by the judge to conceal the juror’s identities for an extended period a time. They will have an important job and they deserve our prayers for protection, provision and wisdom. They are worthy of appreciation for serving the system of human justice in our community.

Many of the potential jurors have appeared nervous as they were asked a multitude of questions. Mr. Zimmerman’s attorney, Mark O’Mara, asked one juror if she understood what we were doing in the jury selection process. She replied, “Working to give Mr. Zimmerman a fair trial.”

I was impressed by how this is accomplished in our system. Both the prosecutors and defense (including Mr. Zimmerman) have the opportunity to veto a limited number of prospective jurors without cause. Personally, I had not realized that Mr. Zimmerman has the civil right to object to any juror. At the end of each day of jury selection, Mr. Zimmerman was asked directly by the judge whether he approved of his lawyer’s questions and selections from the jury pool. He replied, “Yes, your honor.”

The jurors being interviewed have been pre-screened by a questionnaire as to whether they have formed an opinion regarding the outcome of the case. The pool of jurors being interviewed has indicated that they have not formed an opinion.

I was struck by the fact that it was these individual jurors unwillingness to draw conclusions, make assumptions and pre-judge the facts and parties involved in this case which makes them uniquely qualified to become the ones who will ultimately determine this trial’s verdict. How many of us can say that we have reserved judgment, that we have not assumed? How many of us have spoken words without full knowledge or judged the parties involved without all the facts?

Indeed, the dangers and pitfalls of making “assumptions” and “pre-judgments” reside at the very heart of all that is involved in this case both inside and outside the courtroom. Humanly speaking it is very difficult to give the benefit of the doubt, particularly when our past experiences and personal histories include hurts and violations. There are important lessons to learn in all of this, if we only have eyes to see and ears to hear.

The pastors who have committed to attending the trial have a united commitment to seek the well-being and peace for our community and the unity of the Church under one Lord Jesus Christ; please join us in praying to this end.

Still healing, Sanford braces for George Zimmerman’s trial

Excerpt from Larger article:

…Part of that strategy has been turning to the city’s spiritual leaders to defuse simmering racial tension and guide the city to reconciliation. With the start of the trial, they will add courtroom observer to their role. About a dozen pastors, part of a larger group of clergy, are working with the U.S. Department of Justice and Seminole County Sheriff’s Office, and will attend the trial each day, then report back to their congregations and the public. The pastors, representing an ethnic and denominational cross-section of the area, will rotate among four reserved seats in the courtroom.

“We are going to be a witness, watch how the system works, watch the case unfold and share that,’’ says Rev. Charles Holt, of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in neighboring Lake Mary. “The role of the clergy in this case is to call on the community to be responsible in its response. This case and trial has the ability to divide.”…

…Holt said he is hopeful the public, from Sanford or elsewhere, will respect the verdict.

“This trial will either divide our community or bring us together,’’ Holt said. “We can let the demons rule or the better angels rule. We have to make the choice.’’

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/06/08/v-fullstory/3440736/the-healing-of-sanford.html#storylink=cpy

 

Sanford: The Untold Story

The black, hispanic and white pastors of Sanford continue to meet and build relationships and work on the racial issues. This video captures the spirit of some of the meetings that marked the beginning of that relationship in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting. The emphasis is on prayer, reconciliation and peacemaking. This good work is continuing to go on even though the cameras have stopped rolling.

The local church and the Trayvon Martin situation

Dear all:

I would like to give you all a bit of an update on the Trayvon Martin situation here in the Diocese. I will not fill you in on the things that you get from the news but some of the things you may not know.

The first thing that I would say is that it is not helpful to engage in inflammatory rhetoric such as pre-judging the verdict of Mr. Zimmerman’s trial. The justice system in the US is human and imperfect. Yet it is the best the world has to offer. In this instance, it is working.

Much of the lesson of this case is about making pre-judgments before facts are known or processes have played out. As a church, we must do better than the world. Also, recognize that many of the leaders involved down here are our fellow Episcopal parishioners and part of our mission field. They do not need the larger church making their jobs more difficult by rash statements. This is a plea for us all to speak wisely.

The shooting took place at an apartment complex less than two miles from St. Peter’s (my congregation) and across the street from my daughter’s school. Several days ago a police car was parked on the school grounds as a deterrent. The next day it had been riddled with bullet holes.

Half the kids did not show up for school that day.

Fr. Rory Harris and I are the rectors of the two closest parishes and we are very much publically involved in the community especially in this issue. The first was in organizing an ecumenical Good Friday Prayer service for local ministers at Holy Cross Episcopal Sanford (read my sermon here). Over 60 clergy from a wide variety of denominations and ethnic/race groups were represented in the leading and participation. We took the entire situation to the foot of the cross.

The various clergy of Sanford and Seminole County are coming together in Holy Spirit appointed ways through this human tragedy. I will share with you a report that I wrote to the Bishop and clergy of Central Florida

yesterday:

Three significant clergy meetings were held in our area today (4/12/12) related to the Trayvon Martin case.

The first was at noon at Allen Chapel AME, Valerie Houston, Pastor. She was one of the preachers at the Good Friday clergy prayer gathering.

Many are referring to that church as “ground zero church” because that is where the initial public outcry began.

At this meeting the state special prosecutor, Angela Corey, and the newly assigned prosecuting attorney, and the Federal Justice Department community relations person, Mr. Battles, all presented and opened up for discussion with about 30 local pastors mostly from the local black churches. Dr. Raleigh Washington, president of Promise Keepers, was also present.

Corey revealed that she is a member at St. John Episcopal Cathedral in Jacksonville. They were all very open about their faith and called on the pastors to lead in the community and become the voice of the community rather than allow unauthorized spokespersons who may not represent the community well.

They spoke about the importance of patience, their passion for the victims of crimes and the need for justice for Mr. Martin and due process for Mr. Zimmerman. They asked for our prayers for ALL involved.

The second meeting was with Raleigh Washington and the black ministers of Sanford. I did not attend that meeting.

The third meeting at Charisma Media (formerly Strang Communications) in Lake Mary was very well attended, probably about 100 pastors and church leaders, 20 or so from Sanford. Some, but by no means all, of the black clergy that were at the other two meetings came to this as well.

Dr. Washington spoke from 2 Corinthians 5 about the need for the church to seize this opportunity to bring the ministry of radical reconciliation as ambassadors of Christ. He was great actually! Lots of other folks spoke and shared thoughts. One of the significant words came from Joel Hunter, Northland, that a leader from Sanford needed to be raised up.

Toward the end of the meeting a young black minister, Rev. Derek Gay, felt the call. He has been connected with some of the key meetings with leaders in the city and the Martin’s particularly the one about whether to release the 911 tapes. In a very moving moment Sam Hinn, pastor of the Gathering Place and yes Benny’s brother, knelt and committed to being Rev. Gay’s, Aaron. Then all of the other ministers from Sanford in the room stood with young Rev. Gay and pledged support and action.

Raleigh Washington sealed the moment in prayer as a divine commission and work. We all committed to stepping up and being the leaders for such a time as this.

Many spoke of the possibility that national renewal and revival might begin with Sanford Florida if the church will repent, pray and lead toward relationship. Relationship being the key word in Raleigh Washington’s challenge. It was also recognized by several that any renewal must have at its heart (and even must begin with) the youth.

Tomorrow there will be a press conference on the steps of Holy Cross Episcopal Church at 10 am. The entire event at Charisma Media was filmed. Reported Here and full press conference.

Personally, I believe the Lord is going to use this tragic moment to bring our community together in some very good and profound ways. He will be glorified in this, we have seen it. Certainly there is lots to pray about. Please pray for Sanford and the Lord’s leading and protection of the people of our community.

Charlie Holt