Was the Zimmerman Trial a System Failure?

Since the jury’s not guilty verdict the media have exploited outrage, the outraged have exploited the media, and cunning, duplicitous politicians have exploited both.  It has been impossible to avoid the trash-talk.

  • Al  Sharpton bellowed through his MSNBC megaphone:  “Now every child is at risk” [of being murdered.]
  • Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Roddy White: “All them jurors should go home tonight and kill themselves for letting a grown man get away with killing a kid.”
  • Chicago’s activist Priest, Father Pfleger, roared at a raucous crowd of demonstrators: “We’re tired of race being the foundation of justice in America.”
  • PBS host Tavis Smiley: “Something is wrong in this country when adults can racially profile and gun down children.
  • Juan Williams on Fox News: In their verdict, the jury failed to show any compassion for the Martin family.
  • MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry: “[when the verdict was announced] I thought, I live in a country that makes me wish my sons away, wish that they don’t exist, because it’s not safe.
  • Lawrence D. Bobo, Chair of the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard University: “A teenager went out to buy Skittles and iced tea. At some point, he was confronted by a man with a gun who killed him. There is no universe I understand where this can be declared a noncriminal act. Not in a sane, just and racism-free universe.”

In a speech to the NAACP Tuesday Attorney General Eric Holder called for:

…respectful and responsible dialogue about issues of justice and equality to  confront underlying attitudes, mistaken beliefs and perceptions, so we can meet division and confusion with understanding and compassion and ultimately with truth, however hard that is.

This article is Liberty Works’ humble contribution to Mr Holder’s dialogue.

The attackers of “the system” either do not understand what trials and juries do or they are willfully deceiving their audiences.

I would like to counter these attacks on the jury system in general, and the Zimmerman jury specifically with the story of another trial.

Two years ago I was summoned for jury duty in federal court.  I grumbled, but resigned myself to submission to authority and showed up at the court house, albeit with an attitude.  I didn’t know the experience, my first time on jury duty, would profoundly change that attitude.

After a couple of hours of bureaucratic tedium I was called to join a group of prospective jurors for a trial.  We were escorted to a jury deliberation room by a staffer who told us nothing about the case except that it was a lawsuit – not criminal.

The door from the courtroom opened by a Bailiff who invited us in and we saw the plaintiff for the first time.  He was a black man, dressed in an orange, prison jump suit, handcuffed to his chair.  Behind him stood two armed, stone-faced guards.

The Judge announced that the plaintiff – I’ll call him Mr. Jones –  was an inmate in the California State Prison System.  Mr. Jones was suing four prison corrections officers, and he was representing himself – he did not have an attorney.  He was in his fifties and we learned later that he had served more than one prison term and a total of more than 25 years.  We were not told what crimes he had committed.

The judge called on us one at a time to answer screening questions including, “have you ever been a victim of a serious crime?”  I answered yes, and the judge asked me to tell the court the details.  Decades ago, when I was a teenager working in a gas station, I was the victim of armed robbery.  Given that the plaintiff was a convicted felon I thought my answer would get me booted off the jury.  But it didn’t.

Probably because the self-represented Mr Jones wasn’t sophisticated enough to challenge potential jurors, he ended up with what would, from his point of view, be the jury from hell.  Not only had I been a crime victim, two others had relatives in law enforcement, including prison corrections officers.

In federal court civil cases are tried before eight person juries.  This black inmate’s lawsuit against four white prison guards would be heard by seven whites and one Asian-American.  Later, during deliberations it became evident that none of us was a “soft-on-crime liberal.”  All of us were uncompromising “law and order types.”

At this point most readers would likely conclude Mr. Jones lawsuit was probably without merit, but even if he had a case “the system” had already failed him.  As the trial began I felt like I was an unwilling participant in a stupid waste of time.

But there’s an element to the jury service experience that isn’t often discussed.  The majestic processes and formality of the court, the precise supervision by the Judge, and the deference and respect that jurors are shown by the Judge, attorneys, and court staff all serve to motivate jurors to focus on the facts and evidence, to set aside biases and preconceptions and take their solemn responsibilities seriously.

It was a complicated case but I’ll strip it down to essentials. Mr Jones had fallen in a prison stairwell, suffering injuries serious enough for a three day stay at a hospital outside the prison.  We were not told the circumstances that led to his fall.  The day after he came back from the hospital, while he was still recovering from his injuries, the four guards came to his cell to escort him to an administrative appointment.  As they were leaving his cell he fell to the floor.  He claimed the guards had caused his fall, and that the fall had aggravated his injuries, rendering him disabled, and unable to walk without a cane.

So how did this case end up in federal instead of state court?  Mr. Jones claimed the guards deprived him of every prisoner’s Eighth Amendment right to be free of “cruel and unusual punishment.”  Under laws passed by Congress that define cruel and unusual punishment the incident could have been a civil rights violation if we the jury found that certain legal tests were met, including unnecessary force.

Unlike the Zimmerman trial there was no media coverage at all.  Nobody was in the courtroom watching except the defendant guards, their supervisor and a couple of their relatives.

Mr. Jones was poorly educated and struggled to articulate even simple ideas as he presented his case and questioned witnesses, including the guards.  The guards were defended by an experienced trial attorney who was paid by the state. 

After considering applicable laws and prison regulations we jurors found that the guards’ actions were indeed a violation of Mr Jones’ Constitutional rights.  We awarded only one dollar in compensatory damages because the medical evidence was ambiguous and inconclusive and because an inmate’s medical costs are already paid by the prison system.  But because we were persuaded that the guards had violated his Eight Amendment rights, as defined by the law, we awarded Mr. Jones $15,000 in punitive damages.

So how is this story relevant to the Zimmerman case?  The Zimmerman Jury Instructions included:

  • You must follow the law as it is set out in these instructions.  If you fail to follow the law, your verdict will be a miscarriage of justice.
  • This case must be decided only upon the evidence that you have heard from the testimony of the witnesses and have seen in the form of the exhibits in evidence and instructions.
  • This case must not be decided for or against anyone because you feel sorry for anyone, or are angry at anyone.

Our instructions included similar language.  I didn’t detect racial bias in any of my fellow jurors.  But to measure up to these standards we all had to overcome a powerful bias in favor of prison guards who we respected for serving society by doing a difficult, dangerous job.   And of course we were biased against a convicted criminal. 

But we opened our minds.  We were ordinary, flawed people, but we rose to the implicit expectation that we would, like countless juries before us, make a trial in the United States of America unbiased and impartial.

Like the Zimmerman verdict, our verdict was about one event, one moment in time.  We were not asked to decide if the judicial and prison systems are fair to blacks or to settle any broad societal conflicts.  All we were asked to do is decide if one inmate’s civil rights were violated for one minute on a Tuesday in 2006.

The Zimmerman jury’s duty was not to assess and pass judgement on race relations in America.  They were not asked if it’s “fair” that some whites are afraid of black men.  They did not decree that from now on whites are free to shoot black children.  All they did was determine that in one tragic moment George Zimmerman acted in self defense.

My experience demonstrates not that I or the other members of the Mr. Jones’ jury were morally superior, but that under our system a jury can overcome a high wall of natural biases.   It’s likely that some or all of the women on the Zimmerman jury shared the belief held by most whites, that African Americans do, at least sometimes, suffer from prejudice and discrimination.   They might have felt a bias in favor of a verdict that would, in the words of Juan Williams above, show some compassion for Trayvon Martin’s family.

But they focused on the actual testimony and evidence and found, as anyone who takes the time to listen to the closing arguments would agree, that the Prosecution simply did not meet the standard of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt for either the crime of murder or of manslaughter, as those crimes are defined in Florida law.

Mr. Holder could make a major contribution to healing the wounds this trial has opened with a robust defense of the Zimmerman jury.  Six women rose above politics, overcame breathtaking bias in the media, and set aside fears for their own safety, to make a trial in the United States of America fair and impartial.

1 Comment so far

  1. Larry Walker Jr on July 20th, 2013

    Thanks Jeff. This is an excellent experience based post, the kind that matter.