What I Learned from the Zimmerman Trial

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I learned many things attending the trial of George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida, and watching it online, but one important thing I learned was fully unexpected, and it was this: the Republicans may never win a national election again.

This observation has nothing to do with the February 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin, nothing to do with race, nothing to do with policy, and everything to do with the way people, especially women and young people, increasingly get their information.

Jury selection, a tedious affair even in a celebrated trial, served as an ad hoc focus group on American media habits. Defense attorney Don West summed up the thrust of it with a totally unexpected knock-knock joke at the outset of the defense’s opening statement.

“Knock-knock,” said West. “Who’s there?” he continued. “George Zimmerman. George Zimmerman who? All right, good, you’re on the jury.” What impressed observers on either side of the divide was just how many people-many of them well educated and employed-could have known so little about the most divisive criminal case in the nation and the most disruptive in the history of Seminole County, Florida.

Several potential jurors admitted to having no real source of news other than what they picked up on Facebook or at the water cooler.  Juror B29, a female who made the jury, may have inspired the knock-knock joke. “I don’t like watching the news, period,” she told West. “I don’t read any newspapers, don’t watch the news.” She had “no idea” about the case. Ironically, her indifference to the news may have assured Zimmerman his acquittal.

On the other hand, the cluelessness of several eyewitnesses helped the State of Florida build its case against Zimmerman. Their testimony provided direct proof, if any were needed, of the corrupting influence of months and months of disinformation from the major media.

The foreign-born Jeannee Manalo lived very near the site of the encounter. In her first interview with law enforcement in March 2012, she admitted to not seeing much, just “two shadow [sic] . . . .  One was on top of the other. I don’t know which one.” Nor at the time could she distinguish which of the two was bigger. By the time of the trial, however, Manalo had concluded that the one on top had to be Zimmerman, as “the top was bigger than the bottom.”

The photos she saw repeatedly on the news convinced her Martin was a child. Defense attorney Mark O’Mara produced some of the photos she might have seen: the iconic photo of a youthful Martin in his red Hollister shirt, two photos of a preteen football player, and the photo of Martin in his hoodie. Manalo innocently confirmed these images as the source of her perception. In reality, of course, Martin was at least four inches taller than Zimmerman and, at 158 pounds, all but fully developed.

Jayne Surdyka, a former school teacher, lived alone in a townhome just north of the site of the fatal confrontation. She told the court that she initially heard a confrontation between two males, one with a dominant, aggressive voice and the other with a softer, meeker tone, “It was someone being very aggressive and angry at someone.” From the imagery Surdyka gleaned in the media, she presumed that Zimmerman was the aggressor. “I truly believe the second yell for help was a yelp,” said Surdyka. “It was excruciating. I really felt it was a boy’s voice.” Before the trial, she had never seen a photo of a bloody Zimmerman, a testament in itself to the breadth of media bias and the myopia of even college-educated professionals.

The State called still another female eyewitness to testify, in this case through her interpreter. A blonde Columbian, Selma Mora Lamilla saw little and had little to say. Curiously, the State failed to call her outspoken, English-speaking roommate, Mary Cutcher.  In the six-week-long hysteria between Martin’s shooting and Zimmerman’s arrest, Cutcher, a massage therapist, was easily the most visible of the eyewitnesses. Her message was one that the media wanted to hear: the police were ignoring eyewitnesses like herself and her roommate whose testimony challenged Zimmerman’s innocence.

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