A jury of whose peers? George Zimmerman’s trial, and mine

Zimmerman’s jury: The ideal vs. the real (3rd comment)

10 minute read
Jurors in '12 Angry Men' (1957): Do men see violence differently?
Jurors in '12 Angry Men' (1957): Do men see violence differently?
In the mid-1980s I served on a jury for a murder trial in Philadelphia. The case involved a man in his mid-30s who allegedly tied up another man, forced him to sit in a bathtub and then stabbed him 27 times.

The police needed only a few days to find the suspect in his own house. He had thrown his bloodstained pants and shoes— worn during the murder— into a hamper in the corner of his room. They found the black-handled switchblade he used, barely wiped off, on the top of his dresser. They also found what was later identified as the victim's portable radio, also bloody, in the house.

Neighbors knew both men and something about the altercation that led to the killing. In a sense, the case was simple.

The defense claimed the killing was committed in self-defense— that the victim had provoked and fought with the defendant. As the fight continued, it escalated and the defendant got the best of his attacker. But there were no witnesses, so it wasn't possible to know who had started the fight.

In the end, the verdict was guilty of first-degree murder. Without going into detail, suffice it say that the defense failed to explain how, while fighting, the defendant managed to tie up the other man, drag him upstairs to a bathtub, stab him multiple times and turn on the water faucets. In other words, at some point, there was a definite intention to kill the man.

The sentence was death. Among the 12 jurors, I probably exerted a substantial, if not decisive, influence on the deliberations and the outcome.

One thing in common

I've never felt anything but conflicted about the entire episode. During the trial as well as the two sessions in the jury room, I experienced a sustained tension brought about by the unexamined premise of the ideal versus the actuality of "a jury of peers."

In what sense were I and the other jurors— mostly older, retired black, white and Hispanic men and women, plus a few female office workers"“ "equals" to each other, besides being residents of Philadelphia? As soon became apparent in relation to the scene of the crime and other factors, none of us were "peers" of the defendant or the victim.

So, was our peer status based on some assumed, although prescreened, set of moral values and understanding? Were we representative of some normative consensus about criminality or social laws? Were we assumed to be peers in our types of intelligence or our ability to listen to evidence and argumentation and make a reasonable judgment? Or, was our peer relationship to be based our common experience in the shared process of being "the jury" for the duration of the trial?

Except for our age differences, we certainly weren't too divergent in terms of social experience— up to a point, that is: I was the only juror with a college education. Did that matter? I am troubled that it did.

Rock concerts and block parties

I write this, of course, following George Zimmerman's recent trial for the killing of Trayvon Martin. I watched a good deal of that trial— in part out of professional interest, as I often teach and write about language in performance, as well as issues of race, class and the media. So I'm ever-attentive to the types of specialized language and discourses that performers use—in the theater of the courtroom or anywhere else. I also think about audiences— or, in a courtroom, the jury— and who they are, what they hear, what they know, how they may process information or emotionality or the content and context of what they are hearing.

In a theater or at a rock concert, one can reasonably assume that the audience shares a great deal of knowledge and values, if only because they have assembled there by choice. At a block party in many Philadelphia neighborhoods, the residents may not agree about most issues; but when the same people gather at a neighborhood association meeting, the may share goal and procedures that can provide the basis for agreements. In that context, the neighbors become "peers" for a common cause.

Unknown factors

As far as the Zimmerman jury is concerned, it seemed pretty obvious to me from the outset that the choice of six women was problematic in terms of the question of "peers." Whose "peers" were these jurors?

Obviously, neither Zimmerman nor Martin was female. Though we don't know about the jurors' life experiences, educations or religious preferences, it may be worth asking whether any of them had been involved in or witnesses to street fights among young men.

True, the jurors were from the same geographical location. But in contemporary America, what does that indicate (especially as we know little else about them)? As we have learned since, one Zimmerman juror is Hispanic and a mother. That may be significant— but without much more information about her, who knows?

How men view fights

As in the Zimmerman trial, the jury that I served on was the result of a selection process. After the attorneys exhausted their peremptory challenges, there were no young men of color on the jury, and, more women than men. Notwithstanding the number of panelists peremptorily excused, I think this jury makeup had to do with the extreme violence of the crime.

Had there been more men, the defense might have persuaded us that the "fight" between the defendant and victim was so severe that the anger and emotion lasted for hours. Besides, after a fight begins, aren't both parties defending themselves? Men can get that.

The women jurors, on the other hand, might have felt sympathetic toward the defendant in the sense that this was clearly a case about a fight that had gotten out of hand, with homicidal results. But the prosecution, on the other hand, wanted women to fear the violence of the fight and perceive the defendant as a vicious criminal capable of murder and indifference.

Intent to murder

For me, it all came down to the judge's instructions to the jury: If we found premeditated "intent" on the part of the defendant (beyond a reasonable doubt), we must convict him of first-degree murder.

We jurors were told, as I recollect, that intent could be defined as some form of forethought— either long before (as in a pre-planned assault) or up to the moment when the victim was killed. Think of someone pointing a gun at a person who does not have a gun and making a decision to shoot, as opposed to saying, "I have a gun on you, back off" or "I am going to shoot you." If you have merely a split-second to intend to kill, that could be considered intent. Or, so the judge explained "intent" to me and that jury.

It didn't take us long to grasp that the accused took more than an hour to tie up and drag his victim up a flight of stairs and then stab him repeatedly"“ actions that indicated an intent to commit murder. Self-defense was out of the question: The victim was hog-tied and bleeding well before he died! Yet, even so, a few jurors believed that a man's rage could last that long— for which some kind of "temporary insanity" defense might have been mounted (although none was).

Reluctant point man

In the jury room, at first I sat quietly. Here was a group of solid, real city people, around whom I spend my everyday life, and I trusted them explicitly. However, it soon came out that, while I came from an average working class background, I held advanced degrees and a position as a college teacher. Then, after clarifying some point or another in one discussion, someone affectionately referred to me as "the professor." Thereafter I became, reluctantly, the point person.

After a majority voted for a guilty verdict on the first ballot, I became the foil for those advancing it. It seemed up to me to represent the law and the legal process as well as some version of logic and argumentation beyond street knowledge. After all, a trial is about adhering to the legal system, and it appeared that I could frame issues more effectively.

But through it all I kept wondering about the issue of peers.

Gender, race or education?

Two decades ago, gender was surely an issue, but I'm fairly certain men could have dominated that group, much the way I apparently did because of a perceived status difference in my education. I couldn't help wondering: If I had to contend with another professional male juror who held an opposing point of view, would the outcome have been the same?

Race didn't play a part in the trial, as both the victim and the defendant were of the same race. But age was a factor (I was the youngest juror). The outlaw image of the young defendant was implied enough during the trial to warn the jurors that they wouldn't want this type of person back on the streets. But I wondered if a group of younger, male jurors— more like the men in the fight— would have felt so intimidated.


A woman's sympathy

It's too late, I suppose, to raise those questions about the Zimmerman jurors. I suspect the defense lawyers figured that an all-woman jury wouldn't be capable of considering what actually happens during a street fight lasting a minute or so, or how and where a gun is worn and what it takes to draw it out and use it. They would see the bloody photographs of Zimmerman's face and head and think the worst: He was attacked and had to defend himself.

In short, the particular women selected for that jury would also be much more likely to be persuaded, sad to say, by the careful arguments and presentations of authoritative, logical, white "nice guy" lawyers.

On the other hand, the prosecution, as men, no doubt believed that women would feel sympathy toward the death of a 17-year-old kid without (as other commentators have pointed out), conveying what kind of kid Trayvon Martin was.

Decisive factor

Although a jury of only six people is permitted by law, it seems arguable that the decisive factor in their verdict was that they were more peers to each other than to either Trayvon Martin or George Zimmerman— or, for that matter, the attorneys representing both sides.

The whole episode leaves me wondering about the notion of a jury of peers— and, as with so much in America these days, the differences among us in terms of class, gender and cultural experience and knowledge.♦

To read a related commentary by Jackie Atkins, click here.
To read a related commentary by Maria Thompson Corley, click here.

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