Zimmerman case reveals flawed jury selection process

By Alan Bean

A jury comprised of five white women and one Latina has acquitted George Zimmerman on all charges.  This outcome was largely determined by the way we select juries in America.

Imagine that two women who looked like Trayvon Martin were part of the deliberation.   Can you imagine an acquittal under those circumstances?  I can’t.

In an earlier post I argued that a jury of women who look like the accused would have a hard time finding him guilty of anything.  I wasn’t suggesting that these women were overt, old-school racists who love the Nigrah . . . in his place.  I was simply suggesting that they would find it hard to identify with the victim.

Zimmerman should have been convicted of manslaughter because, for no discernible reason, he saw an unarmed back adolescent as a threat and, contrary to instructions from law enforcement, decided to pursue him.  

What did Zimmerman think his pursuit of Martin would accomplish?  The scenario Zimmerman created by his rash actions inevitably lead to a confrontation that was almost certain to end in violence.  The responsibility for this outcome rests with the now-acquitted man who drove the action.

Two Black jurors, male or female, would have interpreted the scene from the perspective of the victim.  They would have naturally identified with those emotions in a way that, tragically, few white people can.

Precisely because the women who acquitted Mr. Zimmerman are not racists in the conventional sense, they would have benefited from this counsel and voted accordingly.  Unfortunately people who naturally identified with the victim were systematically excluded from the jury room.

But the problem isn’t just racial composition.  To get onto this jury you had to convince a judge, a prosecutor and a defense attorney that you knew next to nothing about the Trayvon Martin case.

In theory, an ill-informed jury is an objective jury.  In reality, an ill-informed jury is a disengaged and ignorant jury.

By placing a premium on clueless ignorance, the court determined that nobody who looked like Trayvon Martin would survive the voir dire gauntlet.  The only Black people in Florida who knew nothing about this case were in a coma.

The quest for out-of-touch jurors didn’t just give us a bunch of not-the-sharpest-knife-in-the-drawer white people, it also gave us jurors with a low level of social awareness.  Anyone who cares about justice and basic fairness, regardless of race, was aware of this case.  Exclude all of these people and you end up with folks short on empathy.   Empathy is learned in the give and take of social encounter, and these women dropped that class.  They aren’t bad people.  I’m sure they did their best to render to a just verdict.  I wouldn’t be surprised if tears were shed in the juror room.

They simply weren’t up for a demanding job.

That’s why I say the outcome of this case was determined by the jury selection process.  Mistakes were made by the prosecution, certainly.

Zimmerman may have been guilty of second degree murder, but the facts were too fuzzy to make a persuasive case.  The prosecution should have emphasized the facts that are not in dispute, facts that, properly interpreted, make a strong case for manslaughter.

Defense counsel made a strong appeal to actual innocence.  When the facts are ambiguous, it is a defense attorney’s job to counter the prosecution’s claim of guilt with an unambiguous insistence on innocence.  That was done, and it was effective.

But the prosecution was always tacking into the wind on this one.  When you’ve got a jury of nice, earnest women who are largely detached from social reality this is the kind of verdict you can expect.

9 thoughts on “Zimmerman case reveals flawed jury selection process

  1. You make a very good point on jury selection but of course what you identified is a symptom, not the problem. Jury selection would not be an issue if people were educated as to how this thing called institutional racism and white privilege evolved and how it affects our everyday lives, how generations of oppression will necessarily melt into the cultural identity of a whole community. When an entire country’s history books deliberately omit 90% of the contributions of a whole community, and that community gets a patronizing dusty pamphlet knocked off the shelf every February to recognize a handful of those contributors, that’s a damn skinny thread to hang your identity on. That, infused with a culture of poverty incites crime from whence emerges racial profiling which begets crime which begets racial profiling …. This death occurred for one reason only – racial profiling. Unfortunately, now I can see ‘dem black mamas maken sure dey chirren be packen heat fo they snack runs’ and the spiral goes on and on. In the meantime, I think it would go a long way to change the way we “verdict” people from “Not Guilty” to “Not Found Guilty.” A court of Law is not always a court of Justice. Laws need to evolve. And our primary and secondary school history books should be burned at the stake. Blessings….

  2. I have just read *The Collapse of American Criminal Justice* by William Stuntz. He has a great deal to say about jury selection.

  3. Not being either a lawyer or a judge, I have been a jury foreman for a murder trial in Dallas County where the accused was acquitted on grounds of self defense. Self defense was so clear that some members of the jury were of the opinion that the case should not have come to trial, that judicial or prosecutorial discretion should been exercised. Race was not an issue. The deceased and the accused were both white. I saw a judge interviewed on television who said essentially the same about the Zimmerman case, that Judgement Of Acquittal should have been issued by the judge. I suspect that desire for fame, combined with fear of the black community, on the part of prosecuters and judge, may have moved the trial forward.

    In his book, Out Of Order, former Judge Robert Borke argues that our judicial system is severely hampered by judges who are incompetent or corrupt or both. He cites example after example. In my opinion, admission of television cameras to court trials is a signal indicating a judge hungry for fame, whose judgement is compromised before trial begins.

  4. Stuntz argues that Irish Americans weren’t discriminated against in the criminal justice system in the 19th century because, although crime rates in poor Irish immigrant neighborhoods were extremely high, the court system was also dominated by Irish citizens who could identify with both the seriousness of the crime and the life experience of the accused. He says the jury selection process exacerbates racial tensions and leads to bad verdicts because jurors don’t understand defendants. In the Martin case, the jury was able to empathize with the defendant all too well, but couldn’t do the same for the victim. Stuntz was a white Christian (a rarity at Harvard) who was able to trump ideology with fresh, independent thinking. That’s what we need if we hope to move forward.

  5. Part of the problem with this case is that Zimmerman’s taped comments on his 911 call clearly reveal racial animus, yet the legal system has a hard time dealing with racial dynamics unless an actor freely admits to being racist or makes overtly racist remarks. The profiling of Martin was over the top obvious, yet the judge refused to allow prosecutors to use the term “racial profiling” and the prosecutor didn’t see this as a case with significant racial overtones. Zimmerman would not have confronted a white kid, even if the kid was dressed like Trayvon. He went after Martin because he believed he was a dangerous criminal. That much is beyond question. The prosecution should have focused on the 911 call and downplayed the actual confrontation between the two men. The details there are simply too uncertain to sustain a guilty verdict. Zimmerman didn’t want to kill Martin. I’m not sure what he was after. All we have to go on is his words. On the 911 call he was concerned about “punks” always getting away. Presumably he wanted to apprehend Martin in some way so the police could arrest him. And that’s where his actions cross the line of criminality. Cameras in the courtroom tend to create a carnival atmosphere that isn’t conducive to a just outcome. Criminal justice shouldn’t be a form of entertainment.

  6. In the 1950s, I attended a lecture by a prosecutor in the District Attorney’s office of Tom Green County, TX in which he gave this example of application of self defense law in Texas. Tension between two men came to a conclusion before witnesses when one man, driving his car, stopped and was approached by his enemy on foot. Words were exchanged while one man stood by the driver’s side window. The man on foot drew back his fist. The man inside the car fired at point blank range and killed the other man. The shooter was not prosecuted. Multiple witnesses saw the fist in action. Fearing injury justified the shooting.

  7. No matter what cultures or genders were involved in defendant, prosecution, and jury, having each side’s witness say that the recorded voice was the person he/she knew, automatically provided “reasonable doubt”. It was right for the jury to not find a person “guilty” under that circumstance. Leave it at that. The press does not need to distract the public and negatively impact more lives by continued histrionics.

  8. Thank you, Alan Bean, for your insightful analysis. I always look forward to your read on serious issues. You got it right, once again. Thank you.

  9. Catherine: I agree that the fact issues surrounding the actual confrontation between Zimmerman and Trayvon are fuzzy enough to constitute reasonable doubt. But the evidence surrounding Zimmerman’s racial profiling and his decision to pursue and confront is pretty clear. That should have been enough to sustain a manslaughter verdict. As I argue, the outcome was partly a function of poor prosecutorial strategy and partly a jury selection issue. It also suggests that most white people have no problems with racial profiling and believe it’s justified. That’s scary.

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