Late last week, I became aware that Richard David Smith III, a former Folio Weekly contributor who has also written for Jacksonville Magazine and other local media outlets, had been excused from the jury pool for the Michael Dunn trial. Interested in knowing more, I queried him via Facebook Messenger about the particulars of the selection process, his impressions of Angela Corey and Dunn, and other things pertinent to the proceedings.
As background, given the publicity surrounding this case, and given that most everyone in Northeast Florida has a fairly well-formed opinion about Dunn’s guilt, I was surprised that the judge denied Dunn’s request for a change of venue. I wondered how the court could possibly find a jury of objective, impartial people to assess the facts.
I’d hoped that my conversation with Smith would allay those fears. That wasn’t the case.
Smith was disqualified from the jury primarily because of his association with this paper, which has criticized Angela Corey on any number of grounds [News, “I’m Mad as Hell and I’m Not Going to Take It Anymore,” Derek Kinner, Aug. 6], even though it’s been several years since he wrote for this publication, and even though he has never, to my knowledge, written word one about 4th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Angela B. Corey. As Smith puts it, Corey expressed “great sensitivity” to “negative, unfair things about [her] in that magazine.” (Editor’s note: So sorry we hurt your feelings, Angela. Honest.)
If the story had stopped there, my blog post about Smith’s experience [The Flog, “An Interview with a Dunn Jury Reject,” Sept. 26] likely would’ve come and gone without notice.
But it didn’t stop there.
Smith recounted the story of Juror No. 4, a “400-pound schoolteacher” who memorably disparaged Corey as follows: “She would have a hard time proving to a court that I am fat; there would still be reasonable doubt.” The juror made the joke in front of others in the jury pool, as well as a bailiff, Smith told me. (In his testimony Saturday morning, Juror No. 4 said he didn’t remember making that particular comment, though he did believe Corey “was unprofessional” during jury selection.)
The blog was posted on Friday afternoon. By 9 a.m. Saturday morning, a JSO officer was escorting me through the Duval County Courthouse to testify. This occasioned an away-from-the-media discussion of the article, the questioning of Smith and the juror, and the eventual dismissal of that juror (over the Dunn legal team’s objection that, if Juror No. 4 formed a negative impression of Corey during jury selection, that was Corey’s fault).
At all points in the process, officers of the court, the cops and the attorneys treated me with respect. The only tough question I received was from Dunn’s lawyer in regard to Smith saying that he had qualms about the judicial system in Florida, to which I replied, “Many people are critical of the criminal justice system here in Florida.”
I’ve gotten questions from people outside the courtroom that boiled down to why Smith went to the media instead of the court to voice his concerns about that juror, whom Smith says told him he’d rather be home watching football than serving on the jury. (And who wouldn’t?) In addition, there was some criticism that by reporting Smith’s remarks, this publication somehow “messed up” the trial.
To which we say: bullshit.
Folio Weekly was not in a position to mess up the trial. Folio Weekly reported on one person’s experience and insights regarding the jury selection process. That’s it.
Michael Dunn has no defenders in the media, including me. (I, after all, published Smith’s quote that Dunn seemed like a “stoic monster.”) Indeed, in the courtroom, I observed Dunn’s seeming lack of affect as he gave me a courtly nod when my testimony wrapped up. That said, this is America, and every case — even those with the most obvious conclusions — merits a fair trial. If a juror doesn’t respect a lawyer (here, the prosecutor), even if that lack of respect manifests itself in an offhanded joke, it’s worthy of note as soon as possible, not after the fact. (Imagine if we’d run that blog post during jury deliberations, or after a hung jury or not-guilty verdict.)
I expected the story might gum up the works, as it did. I also expect that jury selection will play a role in the eventual appeals. All of this could have been avoided had the trial been moved someplace where the murder of Jordan Davis wasn’t so widely covered and so notorious, a place where members of the jury pool do not have preconceptions about the district attorney. But Corey wanted the trial in Jacksonville; these are the risks she took.