Jury: a four letter word?
We finally heard from the sixth juror in the Zimmerman trial, the Puerto Rican mother of eight who thinks George Zimmerman was guilty of an intentional act, not committed in self-defense. After listening to what she had to say to Robin Roberts on Thursday, I am more convinced than ever that our jury system is congenitally flawed.
This is not because the outcome was not what I personally thought it should be. It is because our system is supposed to work in such a way that if even one person diverges from the group, the case cannot be settled. What happened here appears to have been a process of wearing down the dissenting opinion until its holder was intimidated into agreeing with the others. I also believe the case was mishandled, based on the evidence. I do not agree that the evidence did not point clearly to Zimmerman’s guilt, I think it was poorly presented for whatever reason.
And, excuse me, sixteen hours is not a long time to deliberate unless it is in one exhausting session. The jury’s wish to get it over with and get home played a large part in the outcome of this case, in my opinion, similar to the Casey Anthony trial. (How could any juror who diligently reviewed the evidence in that case, which was skillfully presented and analyzed by the prosecutors, unlike the incompetence shown in the Zimmerman prosecution, acquit that woman? They just didn’t want to take the time necessary and they were ‘star-struck’, sitting across from Ms. Anthony whose celebrity grew to epic proportions over the course of the trial).
The other Zimmerman jurors claimed they were unclear about manslaughter, second degree murder, the burden of proof. Why did they not take the time necessary to get the clarification that would have dispelled their confusion? And why did the judge allow them to work so late, thereby impairing their ability to reason? If the prosecutors failed to make a strong case, demonstrating how the facts could be connected, step by step, so those jurors could understand each side’s version of what happened, why didn’t someone demand that it be done? They had plenty of time left to deliberate. If all they wanted was to go home and get back to normal, what business did they have accepting this fearsome task in the first place?
In Sociology 101 we learn what happens when groups of people are put in one space and asked to come to a decision on a set of events. The most powerful in the group will have an undue influence over those with less fortitude and conviction and everyone will begin to converge on one set of facts, accurately or not.
I am no legal expert, but when that jury was selected I suspected that the outcome was a foregone conclusion. What is the wisdom of having jurors drawn from a town so clearly skewed in one direction? And why six and not twelve jurors to ensure a greater diversity of intellect and input, at the very least? Sure, this was a jury of Zimmerman peers in the sense that they held the same prejudices and prejudgments that he did.
But more disturbing than this, is the continuing evidence that jurors often just don’t know what they are supposed to do and then have the commitment and sense of duty to take whatever time they must, sacrifice comfort and ease, to make sure they meet the burden with which they are entrusted. These particular jurors keep invoking the idea that they did what the law made them do, but that is not what they were supposed to use as the basis on which to make their decision. They were supposed to look at the facts in the case, the evidence and use that to inform their judgment. In the absence of a clear indication by the prosecution as to who threw the first punch, the jury apparently accepted Zimmerman’s version of the sequence of events that night.
They may not have understood what they were assessing! They were told that ‘stand your ground’ was not to enter into the case, but the Judge’s instructions to the jury were taken, verbatim, from Florida’s stand your ground law. Juror B29 did not understand the law. It was not about ‘intent’, it was about self defense. Who bears responsibility for this misunderstanding? The prosecution? The judge, who seemed to be disengaged and impatient from the outset? The rest of the jury in failing to request and review clarifications? The juror herself? Our system that uses lay people with no legal background to sort out something so complex?
There are countries where trials are adjudicated by experienced judges reading from a book of laws. The alleged crime is categorized, the judge hears the evidence, makes up his or her mind and then consults a resource that dictates the sentence. Justice or injustice is swift and simple. While I am not in favor of that system for many reasons, I do think it offers some advantages that our jury system lacks, such as decision-makers who understand the law and the gravity of their responsibility.
The notion that there is something exalted or inviolate about being tried by a panel of so-called peers has to be called into question, given some of the notorious failures we have seen in recent years (O.J. Simpson, Casey Anthony, and in my view, George Zimmerman are just three with which virtually every American is intimately familiar). I would prefer that jury to either have undergone a training course that would arm them with enough of the relevant law to make this important process less arbitrary. Or, if that is not feasible, then a jury made up of retired attorneys and judges – much as is the case in arbitration.
Just think for a minute, if this were instead in the medical arena, let’s say, the operating theater. Instead of certified, trained surgeons, we would have a group of peers, maybe some of them patients, making the decisions as to how to proceed with treatment, perhaps with a surgeon or two making the case for different methods or courses. Would we be comfortable with that? Frankly, that is what insurance companies are – only they are doing so in the name of profits. I don’t want insurers making my health decisions, nor other patients (unless they are trained physicians in the specialty required) and certainly not my peers. Why is a murder case any less deserving of expertise?
There were remedies available to that jury that would have made the outcome of the case more palatable and lessened the sense of outrage that swept through at least half the population when the verdict was announced. There was mistrial and hung jury, for example.
At the very least, I think every juror in this country should be mandated to watch Twelve Angry Men before they retire for deliberations. Our system would at least have a chance of working the way it was intended instead of devolving to a mere vehicle for garnering notoriety, writing books and giving tabloid interviews for a few cheap dollars, little more than blood money imho. Surely we owe our defendants and victims nothing less.
The importance of what happened here is not that Zimmerman was acquitted – as is often said, better to let a guilty man go free, than an innocent man be convicted, etc.. The crucial ramification of this case is the fact that trigger-happy people may be emboldened to use deadly force when retreat is possible and preferable, and that the entire nation has to fear for their lives for a benighted concept promoted by arms manufacturers and perfected through panels of poorly prepared people talking one another into slavishly accepting it.