The assembly featured a group of panelists who engaged in an opening discussion about the details of the trial and the Stand Your Ground law that's been so closely associated with it. Participants included: Joe Caimino, a criminal defense lawyer and member of Gov. Rick Scott's Stand Your Ground Task Force; Dr. Carolyn Collins, president of the Hillsborough County NAACP; Alec Hall, a federal public defender; Cory Person, president of the George Edgecomb Bar Association; and Ben Montgomery, a staff writer for the Tampa Bay Times who extensively covered the case and trial.
"This is an incident that has galvanized the world for more than a year," said current Tampa Bay Times, and future NPR, TV and media critic Eric Deggans, who moderated the panel. "It's had hordes of media descend on Sanford, Florida, for weeks and months at a time and many of us in the newspaper industry have tried to make sense of this and cut through the misinformation that's out there and get at the facts and try to have, to quote a certain news organization, a 'fair and balanced' discussion."[jump]
All of the panelists explained their lack of surprise toward George Zimmerman's final verdict, with Montgomery introducing one of the biggest issues he found when covering the trial: the quality of the jury.
"We're talking about people who lived within ten miles of where this incident happened and all of the media coverage swarming around all of this, and we wound up with six people who were almost completely unaware of anything that happens," the Times reporter said. "These are people who don't engage with television news, don't engage with the newspaper, don't even necessarily, I think, engage in communication their peers who might be talking about this. So it struck me that in these high profile trials that don't change venue, you wind up with info-hermits. People who choose not to connect with the outside world and are those the kinds of people we want weighing the facts of a complicated case such as this?"
Person seconded Montgomery's claims.
"We have to understand that what makes our jury system so strong is also what makes it so weak. It's that people come to the jury and the people sitting on the jury come with their experiences, their education, their history, their influences, and they're sitting their with all that. Now typically in a system like what we have in America, juries prove that that is the best way you're going to get some fairness across the board, but we also have to understand that is also when we create gross inconsistencies because one jury pool is going to make a very different decision perhaps than another jury pool because they are informed by their life experiences and what they bring to the table. This particular group appeared to be a group that was not very informed, was not very involved in current affairs, what was going on in the community and outside. So, they had a very limited experience in terms of well, 'Why would this gentleman perhaps be pursuing this young male in this community?, Could race have played a factor in that?' Those are the types of things that perhaps if you had an African American jury that would understand quickly some basis of why someone would pursue this unarmed African American child in this community."
After continued debate over the quality of the prosecution's case, with strong condemnation over their inability to present Martin in a more humane way in contrast to the defense's ability to do that with "Georgie" Zimmerman, the discussion moved toward the Stand Your Ground law and its efficiency and legitimacy. While the law wasn't used in Zimmerman's self defense plea, it was included in the jury's instructions. Caimino took the opportunity to recall his experience on Scott's task force and detail why the governor decided to take no action on the controversial law.
"When we set out, our instructions were to listen to people in eight or nine different cities over the course of a year. It wasn't really having dialogue with people. Everyone got three minutes to speak on what their opinion was and we listened to the opinions and the presentations coming in and at the conclusion of the meetings made recommendations based on what was presented by the people. There wasn't an overall sentiment that repealing the statute was necessary. What I felt was the sentiment from people was that everyone agreed with the right to defend yourself, but there were a lot of people whose family members were killed and were unhappy that one person got to make the decision that an arrest was not going to be made or they would not be prosecuted. They felt that that sort of process was unfair."
From that point on, Caimino's position was debated by the rest of the panelists. Collins brought up the rise of self defense killings since Stand Your Ground was implemented and also the case of Marissa Alexander, whose use of the defense failed her and gave her a 20-year sentence, despite not even hitting a person with a bullet. Montgomery cited his past research on the law, including the story of Greyston Garcia, a Miami man who successfully used Stand Your Ground after chasing down and stabbing a burglar escaping from his yard, going back to sleep, and then selling the burglar's wares the following morning.
"In my mind it has this tendency to devalue human life," said Montgomery in describing the law.
Caimino responded to the criticism by saying that Stand Your Ground does not protect the initiator and that the Zimmerman defense did not use it.
Following the discussion, audience members were invited to ask the panelists questions. At times this got contentious, particularly when one member asked Caimino how many African Americans are on the Stand Your Ground Task Force (there are four). There were also some people in the audience who were disappointed that the discussion was focused more on the legal technicalities of the case and not on how society should respond to what happened, and in particular, what the black community should do to make sure there are no more Trayvon Martins.
"My question to each one of you all is do you honestly believe that if we got rid of the Stand Your Ground rule, that it would actually improve the condition of the black community?" asked Roderick Johnson. "Are we looking at this problem the right way? Do we think that by abolishing this rule, it's going to improve the conditions of black families, is it going to improve the conditions of black on black crime? Is it going to improve the amount of black stereotyping that happens in our community? I think that this is our frustration. Our frustration is that we are not getting the benefit of the doubt, maybe in the the court of public opinion or in this case the court of law. Are we attacking this the right way? I'm a person that wants to see improvement in the black community. Do we honestly believe that by putting our attention towards getting rid of the Stand Your Ground law is going to improve the overall condition of the black community?"