Moments after the verdict in the George Zimmerman case came down I argued that a jury without a single African American lacked the social knowledge to get it right. To understand this case, in other words, you had to be able to view Zimmerman’s actions through the eyes of Trayvon Martin. You have to be open to the possibility that the young Black man was standing his ground when confronted.
Most Black people instinctively get this; most White people don’t.
As you might expect, I took a lot of heat. When the post appeared on the Associated Baptist Press blog, half of the comments were deleted as offensive or overly personal.
Readers were particularly offended by my assertion that the jurors in this case were out of their depth.
Now we have interviews from one juror who believes that George Zimmerman’s heart was in the right place when he left his vehicle in pursuit of Trayvon Martin; four jurors who say they strongly disagree with that sentiment and, most recently, revelations from Juror B-29, the only non-White juror.
Two of Juror B-29’s comments are noteworthy; but only one is getting a lot of attention. First, she told ABC that, in her view, Zimmerman “got away with murder.”
Secondly, and more significantly, she explained why the jury hadn’t convicted on the lesser charge of manslaughter. “What we were trying to figure out was, manslaughter,in order to be charged, we had to prove that when he left home, he said, I’m gonna go kill Trayvon Martin.”
Dozens of news outlets have reported on the “he got away with murder” comment, but hardly anyone noticed Juror B-29’s appraisal of manslaughter or realized that she is dead wrong. The jury was wildly off the mark on manslaughter, because, as I initially surmised, they were out of their depth.
When jurors asked the judge for clarification of the manslaughter charge they were met with silence. It had all been explained in the final instructions to the jury. If they didn’t catch the definition the first time, too bad.
Here’s how manslaughter was defined to the jury:
In order to convict of manslaughter by act, it is not necessary for the State to prove that George Zimmerman had an intent to cause death, only an intent to commit an act that was not merely negligent, justified, or excusable and which caused death.
The state didn’t have to prove that Zimmerman was negligent when he pulled his gun or when he pulled the trigger; merely creating a scenario in which a dangerous physical altercation was a likely outcome was sufficient.
Unfortunately, the prosecution made no attempt to make this case. Murder 2 was a hard sell. It forced jurors to guess how things played out between the two men leading up to the discharge of the weapon, and we simply don’t know enough to fill in the blanks.
So why didn’t the prosecution make a case for manslaughter–the only charge supported by the facts? Because to do that they needed to talk about racial profiling and they clearly didn’t want to go there.
White public opinion is split on the profiling question. Some think Zimmerman was justified in profiling Martin because everybody knows how those Black thugs are. And there are those who don’t think the aggressor in this story profiled Trayvon at all. He left his vehicle because he needed a breath of fresh air or wanted to take in the scenery and just happened upon the man who, moments earlier, prompted his 9-1-1 call. No wonder prosecutors didn’t want to mess with race–White jurors hate that kind of talk.
Public opinion surveys suggest that Black people were three times as likely as Whites to have a problem with the outcome in this case. It all comes down to the issue of profiling and whether you identify emotionally with Zimmerman or Martin. That’s why jury composition means everything in this kind of case. It should come as no surprise that the only juror who thinks Zimmerman dodged a bullet is non-white.
I generally ignored the Zimmerman trial unless it happened to be on at the gym while I was lifting weights. Having twice been at the center of media feeding frenzies, I am no fan of the phenomenon. As the coverage of Jurors B-37 and B-29 demonstrates, most reporters have more interest in the killer quote than uncovering the social significance of the stories they cover. Journalists love to talk about race and crime, but they are after the heat of warring talking points not the light of discovery.
The Zimmerman trial matters because of what it says about the impact of racial experience on the criminal justice system. The media has little interest in understanding the news or helping us understand the events unfolding around us. If you missed Marty Kaplan on Moyer’s and Company a couple of weeks ago, check him out. Scary stuff; but he’s bang on target. When the media simply repeat the talking points of political hacks (or attorneys) they aren’t giving us the news, they are being used. And so are we.