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Originally published Monday, June 4, 2012 at 3:48 PM

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The media's verdict on George Zimmerman, the Trayvon Martin shooter

Guest columnist John McLain reflects on the how the hit-and-miss news coverage of the Trayvon Martin shooting might impact justice.

Special to The Times

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I AM now well prepared and more than ready to serve on the jury in the George Zimmerman trial.

You see, I have reviewed all of the evidence presented to me in the media and am confident of rendering the correct decision.

As a former newspaper reporter and having served on one criminal-case jury myself in which the defense dolled-up the accused in a regular boy's short haircut and long-sleeved shirt to hide long, greasy hair and elbow-to-wrist jailhouse tats, I of course joined unanimously in voting not guilty. Only later did I learn that the defendant swallowed a razor blade at Riker's Island. Justice came late.

Believe me, I and my fellow jurors won't make that mistake again. I've paid close attention to Nancy Grace on CNN, Geraldo and to the usual forensic and legal pundits on other channels, and, thanks to them, fully grasp every nuance of the evidence that attorneys on both sides are accused of leaking to the media to self-serve the public's right to know.

Fully do I understand the meaning of the small cut on the ring finger of Trayvon Martin. I have examined closely, on more than one TV channel to be fair, the small abrasions and cuts on the back of Zimmerman's head. These revelations can only bring me closer to making my unbiased, unemotional decision in this case.

The Age of Twitter, the blogosphere and incessant online commentary concerning the hard evidence of this case have been helpful in shaping my knowledge and opinions in Florida v. Zimmerman.

I've carefully balanced my impressions of the recordings of someone — we don't know whom — yelling "Help! Help!" against the clearer recording of a police dispatcher saying, "You're not following him, are you? Don't do that. We need you to stay in your vehicle." It's not easy comparing such evidence, but I'm duty-bound to weigh it.

The visual evidence, I admit, was confusing to me at first. Initial photos of an overweight, unshaven, sinister-looking George Zimmerman, oddly described to televiewers as a "white Hispanic" (whatever that is) was so at odds with the slim, shaven almost-svelte George he is now makes it doubly hard to separate good guys from the bad guys. What's a juror to think?

Not to mention initial photos of Trayvon looking babyfaced, cute, almost angelic, only to find subsequently that he was older and taller, was on suspension from school, and apparently liked an occasional joint.

With photo mix-ups like these, it's not so easy to undo one's snap judgment about a person's worth. It's only human to gauge another person's entire character from first impressions.

In serving the public's right to know, I know that sometimes these things must be rushed into print or on the air to beat the competition. But it can make a juror's decision-making process that much harder. Try as we might, it's impossible to distance ourselves from the emotion that such evidence suggests.

And we jurors, cautioned to render justice impartially, without emotion, know deep down how hard it is to keep emotion out of it. Lawyers for both sides know that better than most jurors will admit.

The next time you witness a judge calling down an attorney for improperly exposing the jury to emotional, inflammatory evidence and hear the judge say, "The jury will disregard that," you know you are hearing a fantasy. A jury disregards nothing — especially evidence that is emotional.

That's why, given this head start with all of that evidence presented in the media, I'm ready to walk clear-eyed into the hall of justice and take my seat among the jury and render my verdict. The public has a right to know, but in cases like this it's up to us, the press and the jury, to provide balance — knowing when, as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, sunlight serves as "the best of disinfectants" and when too much means someone gets burned.

John McLain was a newspaper reporter in California and Florida for 10 years before becoming a national media consultant in New Hampshire. He lives on Whidbey Island.

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