I’ve received a lot of messages since the start of the trial about why it is that Judge Nelson threw the Zimmerman family out of the courtroom, but allowed the Martin family to stay. Clearly both are there for similar reasons–the Zimmerman family to support their son George, the defendant, and the Martin family to support the memory of their son Trayvon.
The reason for the disparate treatment of the two families is two-fold: (1) because they are all potential witnesses in the trial, and (2) because of Florida statute 960.001, “Guidelines for fair treatment of victims and witnesses in the criminal justice and juvenile justice systems.”
General Rule: Witnesses Are Not Permitted to See Other Witnesses Testify
As a general rule, it is not encouraged to allow potential witnesses to a trail to themselves sit in the courtroom while other witnesses testify. For one thing, you don’t want a hostile witness to be able to tailor their testimony to what they heard another witness say. For another, it is human nature that when you hear another person recount events, your own recollection can be tainted by the hearing. A witness who hears another testify may “remember” or “believe” things because they heard them said by another, and not because they have their own, independent recollection of that fact.
While technically it’s not against the law in Florida for a witness to sit in court during the trial, but they are prohibited from doing so if either side requests they be sequestered by the court. (See Spencer v. State, 133 So.2d 729, 731 (FL Supreme Court 1961). As a practical matter such a request is made routinely by both parties, so the end result is that witnesses may not be present in court so long as they may be potentially called to testify.
George Zimmerman’s parents and his wife have all been listed as potential witnesses by the State, and this is why Judge Nelson has excluded them from the courtroom. Zimmerman’s sister, however, has not been so listed, and she is therefore permitted to be present (and has been).
Exception to General Rule for Family of Victim: FL 960.001
Trayvon Martin’s parents have, in turn, been listed as potential witnesses by the defense, as has their family advisor/lawyer, Benjamin Crump. Trayvon’s parents have, however,been permitted to stay in court, as an exception to the general rule just described. The basis for this exception is Florida statute 960.001.
You can see the entire statute here: 960.001 Guidelines for fair treatment of victims and witnesses in the criminal justice and juvenile justice systems, but the most important section for the purposes of this discussion is found in section (1)(e):
A victim, a victim’s parent or guardian if the victim is a minor, a lawful representative of the victim or of the victim’s parent or guardian if the victim is a minor, or a victim’s next of kin may not be excluded from any portion of any hearing, trial, or proceeding pertaining to the offense based solely on the fact that such person is subpoenaed to testify, unless, upon motion, the court determines such person’s presence to be prejudicial.
This statute trumps the usual rule about sequestering the witnesses from the courtroom when the witnesses are the victim’s parent or a lawful representative of the victim’s parents. Where those conditions are met, the parents are allowed to remain in the courtroom despite the fact that they are potential witnesses.
Defense: “Both families or niether?” Judge: “Nope, Martins can stay.”
In an effort to prevent their own client’s parents from being excluded from the courtroom the defense had argued that either both sets of parents should go or neither set should go. Judge Nelson correctly noted, however, that the statute allowed her to exclude the Martin family only if the defense could show their presence would prejudice their client’s ability to receive a fair trial. The defense either could not or did not with to make that case, and so the matter of Martin’s parents was dropped.
But Benjamin Crump Has Got To Go
The defense did not, however, accept the continued presence of the Martin family advisor/lawyer Benjamin Crump, who is also listed as a potential witness. They argued that 960.001 was intended to ensure that the victim of the crime was represented in court, and that if the Martin family was present for that purpose there was no need for Mr. Crump to also be present–essentially, that it was an either-or situation. The judge agreed, and Mr. Crump remains excluded from the trial.