Why do many Central Florida high-profile trials end in acquittals?

Casey Anthony, George Zimmerman, Noor Salman all found not guilty


ORLANDO, Fla. – When a federal jury acquitted Noor Salman last month of aiding her husband in the Pulse nightclub attack, it became the third recent high-profile criminal case in Central Florida to end in a not guilty verdict.

In 2013, a Seminole County jury acquitted George Zimmerman of murdering 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in a trial that sparked public debates over race relations and self-defense.

Two years earlier, jurors who were selected from Pinellas County due to extensive publicity in Orange County found Casey Anthony not guilty of murdering her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee.

Each of those criminal cases involved different criminal charges, different evidence, and different defense strategies.

But psychologist and trial consultant Dr. Amy Singer believes there is a common link among the three acquittals.

"(It's) the fact that they're high-profile," Singer said. 

Although some high-profile trials end in convictions -- including the cases against Martha Stewart, Scott Peterson, Timothy McVeigh and Boston Marathon Bomber Dzhokar Tsarnaev -- Singer believes such cases are more challenging for prosecutors than those that do not have such intense public scrutiny.

Singer, who did work for Anthony's defense team, said attorneys in high-profile trials typically must spend additional time and resources during jury selection trying to find out what information prospective jurors already know about the case through news accounts.

Also, the attorneys often conduct thorough background screenings of prospective panelists to identify so-called "stealth jurors" who may have a hidden agenda, such as plans to write a book, that could influence the outcome of the case.

In the process of researching those prospective jurors, defense attorneys may be able to identify which ones are more open-minded to rendering an acquittal.

"'Not guilty' is the easiest (verdict to reach), because the prosecution has to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt," Singer said.

Even without considering the evidence in the cases, Singer believes the Anthony, Zimmerman and Salman trials were particularly prone to acquittals.

"We've always had high-publicity cases," Singer said. "But there's something different in these three cases than the O.J. Simpson cases and even the Michael Jackson case. And that is social media. That's the game-changer."

During high-profile trials, particularly those that are televised, true-crime enthusiasts and other spectators flock to websites and social media platforms to share theories and opinions.

"They talk about the case," Singer said. "They deliberate in front of you as the trial unfolds. Can you imagine? (It's) a gift. Manna from heaven."

Singer says defense attorneys can use that real-time online feedback to tailor their legal strategy while the prosecution is still presenting its case.

"They're telling you how they react to every piece of evidence. They're telling you how they react to every piece of testimony that they hear," Singer said. "You are literally inside people's' heads."

Social media users can even influence a defendant's wardrobe.

"(In the Anthony case), they did not like her in dark colors. So we started to call her 'Pretty in Pink'.  And if you notice, she wore a lot of pastels," Singer said. "The days that she wore pastels were good days for her. Don't ask me why."

In some high-profile cases, the publicity can be so great and prejudicial to the defendant that the judge decides to sequester the jury.

During the Anthony trial, the jurors were sequestered for six weeks at an Orlando hotel with little contact with family and friends. Jurors hearing the Zimmerman case were kept in sequestration for nearly three weeks. The Salman jury was never sequestered.

Singer believes sequestered jurors tend to grow close friendships with each other due to their common isolation from the outside world and may be less likely to argue when deliberations begin.

"Some of them may not want to hurt each others' feelings," Singer said. "Some of them may not do what people who've been on a jury for two days do, which is (say things like) 'you stupid idiot.'"

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