By Alan Bean
A week ago I wrote two posts related to the composition of the jury in the George Zimmerman case. In the first, I said that common sense suggested that the defendant would be found guilty of manslaughter. The prosecution had only Zimmerman’s description of the altercation between the two men to work with and that made Murder 2 a tough sell. But the fact that none of the six jurors looked like the victim in this story troubled me. My fear was that the jurors would understand why Zimmerman saw Trayvon Martin’s presence in the neighborhood suspicious and potentially dangerous. A single Black juror would have challenged this identification and argued for another way of reading the story.
My second post (which also appeared in the Associated Baptist Press) argued that the jury, though conscientious and well-intentioned, lacked the social experience and the cultural competency to sift through a blizzard of legal considerations.
Most readers who bothered to comment were unimpressed. Some felt that race had no bearing on this case, so the racial composition of the jury didn’t matter. Others insisted that Zimmerman received what the Constitution guarantees: a jury of his peers.
As Bill Stuntz observed shortly before his death, Black jurors are commonly tried by predominantly White juries who are inclined to side with authority figures like police officers and prosecutors and subject to racial bias.
Stuntz was well aware that young Black males are statistically far more likely to engage in violent activity than their White peers (a fact that justifies the crudest forms of racial profiling in the minds of many White opinion leaders). But the same was true of poor young Irish immigrants (and White Southerners) in the nineteenth century.
Because recent arrivals from Ireland lived in predominantly Irish neighborhoods, Stuntz said, Irish defendants were typically arrested by Irish police officers, prosecuted by Irish prosecutors and tried before Irish juries. Defendants were viewed as troubled young men who were fully responsible for their actions, but everyone understood the mitigating factors involved in the case and were able to temper justice with mercy and common sense.
Stuntz, an evangelical Christian and a clear-eyed realist, didn’t think White jurors could pull off this balancing act. Racism was not the big issue; it was a matter of limited social knowledge coupled with an inability to care.
You may have heard the satirical take on intercessory prayer: “God bless me and my wife, our son and his wife, us four, no more.” We laugh because we get the point. We care far more about our dogs than about the kid down the street. It’s human nature. Our ability to care deeply is limited to a small circle of humanity.
It is possible to speak of universal love in an abstract sort of way. But as Linus famously intoned: “I love mankind . . . It’s People I can’t stand.”
Moving beyond our immediate social circle, we find it much easier to identify with people who look like us, dress like us, talk like us–people we understand. Members of our tribe. We are comfortable around such people because we understand (or believe we understand) their aspirations, motivations and emotions. We think we can predict how they will behave. “This kid poses no threat to me,” I think. “Heck, I coached his older brother in Pop Warner.”
But what of the kid who doesn’t looks, talks and dresses in ways I can’t understand? We are threatened by these people. We can’t identify with their life experience. We can’t reckon with their full humanity. In our minds they are filed as “other”, and everyone in that category is suspect.
When do young men like Trayvon Martin come to the attention of the average White suburbanite? On a wanted poster? Doing the perp walk on the evening news? Featured as a generic street thug in TV cop drama?
I suspect the jurors in the Zimmerman case were familiar with the kind of street slang we associate with Hip Hop culture. Their own kids often talk that way and might even dress the part. But we know they’re just posing. They’ll grow out of it. It’s just a uniform warn by insecure adolescents eager to fit in and look cool.
Put the same outfit on a black kid and all bets are off. What if this kid is one of those people on the wanted posters? What if he’s a gang banger who would shoot you just as soon as look at you? What if he hates me just because I’m white? What if he’s just held somebody up at gunpoint? What if someone I love is his next victim?
We know these questions were in George Zimmerman’s mind when he called 911–the taped conversation leaves little room for argument. But what happens when a juror shares these fears, a juror who has reacted in precisely the same way on those rare occasions when a Black kid like Trayvon set foot in her neighborhood?
Black people listen to Zimmerman’s 911 call and wonder what, apart from crude racial stereotyping, could have aroused this degree of suspicion. The kid was just walking home from the corner store, for God’s sake. Where’s the threat in that? There’s only one answer to that question.
Below, you will find a Miami Herald article based on Anderson Cooper’s interview with Juror B-37. She says that half the jurors initially wanted to find Zimmerman guilty of either murder 2 or manslaughter, and half felt he should be acquitted on all charges. Juror B-37 was obviously arguing for the latter position; in fact, she says she admired Zimmerman even while questioning his judgment. Zimmerman’s concerns about Trayvon Martin’s presence in the community were understandable, even laudable. Making the 911 call was good citizenship. But getting out of his vehicle to pursue Martin was a bridge too far.
It is also obvious that none of the jurors asked themselves if Trayvon Martin felt personally threatened by Zimmerman or, if he did, whether he too had a right to stand his ground. Can a threatened person stand his ground with his fists, or does this right extend only to White men packing heat?
Imagine that Trayvon Martin was the guy calling 911? Imagine that Martin decided that Zimmerman didn’t belong in the neighborhood and was up to no good. So he jumps out of the car in pursuit of his man. Suppose that, after an altercation between the two men, Zimmerman is dead on the pavement.
Would an all-white jury see vigilante-Trayvon as a misguided hero; or would he be pronounced guilty in the time it takes to select a jury foreperson?
Is it unreasonable, given my scenario, to imagine an all-white jury finding the black defendant guilty of murder in the first degree if the prosecutor decided to up the ask?
I introduced this post with a cartoon that will likely offend some readers. There is no evidence that George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin in such a calculated fashion, and there is ample evidence that the two men came to blows before the shot was fired.
But the cartoon isn’t trying to re-enact the Zimmerman story, it’s posing a question. If the scene portrayed in the cartoon played out in real life, would Florida’s Stand Your Ground law provide as much legal cover as the cartoonist suggests?
If the shooter is black and the victim white, the question is rhetorical.
But according to Juror B-37, everything came down to George Zimmerman’s subjective state when he pulled the trigger. If he feared for his life, the decision was justified and therefore just.
What if the guy in the cartoon feels mortally threatened by every young black guy who crosses his path? Does this species of fear, however misguided and bizarre it may appear to an objective third party, justify homicide?
The NRA-crafted law that was placed in front of six jurors provides no easy answer. The jurors were limited to their own subjective reactions to young Black males. That’s why jury composition is so critical. And that’s why every person who identifies with Trayvon Martin feels personally threatened by this verdict. It isn’t so much that the jurors got the law wrong. The real fear is that they grasped the paranoid vision behind Stand Your Ground all too well.
BY MARC CAPUTO
Jurors discussed Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground self-defense law before rendering their not-guilty verdict in George Zimmerman’s trial, one of the jurors told CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
The jurors struggled with the law and the jury instructions, said the juror, who spoke anonymously and was identified only by her court ID, B37.
“The law became very confusing. It became very confusing,” she told Cooper Monday night. “We had stuff thrown at us. We had the second-degree murder charge, the manslaughter charge, then we had self defense, Stand Your Ground.”
Juror B37 mentioned Stand Your Ground a second time of her own accord, saying the jury ultimately made its not-guilty verdict Saturday night based on the evidence and “because of the heat of the moment and the Stand Your Ground.”
Still, the degree to which Stand Your Ground led to the not-guilty verdict is unclear and in dispute. Cooper never asked B37.
Stand Your Ground allows a law-abiding citizen to “meet force with force, including deadly force” if he reasonably feels threatened in a confrontation. The NRA-drafted law, passed by the Florida Legislature in 2005, made two major changes to homicide cases:
• It changed standard jury instructions, which previously held that a person had a duty to retreat by using “every reasonable means,” and,
• It gave prospective defendants the right to immunity from prosecution. To make the immunity determination, the courts established pre-trial Stand Your Ground hearings.
Gun-control advocates and many Democrats want to change or eliminate the law. Republicans, who control the Legislature, say the law has helped law-abiding citizens reduce violent crime, and they don’t want to change it.
Zimmerman’s case made Stand Your Ground, which spread to more than two dozen states after it was passed in Florida, a national topic of conversation because he wasn’t arrested for 44 days after shooting Trayvon Martin, a Miami Gardens teen, in a Sanford subdivision where he was visiting his dad on Feb. 26, 2012.
Amid protests and national media attention, Gov. Rick Scott appointed a special prosecutor who then charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder.
Zimmerman waived his right to the Stand Your Ground immunity hearing, a pre-trial event that’s not spelled out in statute. But he was afforded the protections of Stand Your Ground, which is embedded in Florida’s self-defense laws. Its language, found in statute 776.013, was tailored to the Zimmerman trial’s jury instructions and said the following:
“If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.”
Despite the language on the jury-instruction form and B37’s comments about Stand Your Ground, some commentators have said it had nothing to do with the case because it was a standard self-defense case.
But Stand Your Ground is standard self defense in Florida.
The juror, a gun-rights supporter whose interview indicated she admired Zimmerman, said she was ready to acquit the defendant at the beginning of deliberations when the six-member jury held a vote.
“We had three not guilties, one second-degree murder and two manslaughters,” said the juror. “There was a couple of ’em in there that wanted to find him guilty of something.”
The law wasn’t a model of clarity.
One of the jurors wondered about how self-defense law applied in Zimmerman’s situation when he got out of his car and followed Trayvon. The jurors asked the court a question about it, but B37 didn’t recall the specifics.
Zimmerman said he thought the 17-year-old looked suspicious in the burglary-prone neighborhood. B37 said none of the jurors thought Zimmerman was motivated by racial animus.
“George Zimmerman is a man whose heart was in the right place, but just got displaced by the vandalism in the neighborhood,” she said. “He went above and beyond what he should have done. But I think his heart was in the right place. It just went terribly wrong.”
Was he guilty of something? Cooper asked.
“He’s guilty of not using good judgment,” she continued. “When he was in the car, he had called 911, he shouldn’t have gotten out of that car.”
On Tuesday, she partly faulted Trayvon for his own death because he stood his ground and didn’t retreat: “Oh, I believe he played a huge role in his death. He could have… when George confronted him, he could have walked away and gone home. He didn’t have to do whatever he did and come back and be in a fight.”
The prosecution argued that Zimmerman hunted Trayvon down because the neighborhood watch volunteer was armed with a Kel-Tec 9mm handgun, his “equalizer.” Trayvon was unarmed.
The jury ultimately didn’t buy prosecutors’ argument or feel they provided adequate proof.
Jurors also didn’t have all the court instructions for self-defense cases. The judge withheld instructions that the jurors could have used to determine that Zimmerman was an “initial aggressor,” a finding that could have denied him a self-defense defense. But the defense successfully argued — and the state did not forcefully protest — that prosecutors failed to show how Zimmerman was an aggressor.
“Losing the initial aggressor instruction may have been the moment the state lost its case,” criminal-law professor Alafair Burke wrote in the Huffington Post.
But lawyers and partisans are divided over whether Stand Your Ground made the prosecution’s job tougher.
Those who side with prosecutors say the state would have had an easier time pressing their case under Florida’s pre-Stand Your Ground jury instructions, which required the defendant to show how he “used every reasonable means within his power and consistent with his own safety to avoid the danger before resorting to that force.”
“The fact that the defendant was wrongfully attacked cannot justify his use of force likely to cause death or great bodily harm if by retreating he could have avoided the need to use that force,” the old instructions read, according to the Standard Jury Instructions in Criminal Cases issued by the Florida Supreme Court on May 25, 2006.
But other attorneys say that, even under the old law, Zimmerman might have been able to use deadly force. Zimmerman always had a right to follow Trayvon and observe him at a distance. And, they say, once Trayvon surprised and attacked Zimmerman as he walked back to his car — as Zimmerman claimed — Zimmerman had no way to retreat; he had to defend himself and had a right to use lethal force, even under the self-defense laws that predated Stand Your Ground.
Juror B37 said she believed the evidence showed that Zimmerman, not Trayvon, could be heard screaming for his life in the background of a 911 call a neighbor placed during the melee.
In closing arguments, the prosecution appeared to emphasize the details of the fight — how Zimmerman pulled his gun and how many blows Trayvon landed — more than the details of the man’s pursuit of the teen.
And that might have affected the jurors, who apparently focused more on the fight.
“So even though it was he [Zimmerman] who had gotten out of his car, followed Trayvon Martin, that didn’t matter in the deliberations?” Cooper asked B37. “What mattered was those final seconds, minutes when there was an altercation and whether or not… George Zimmerman felt his life was in danger?”
“Well, that’s how we read the law,” she said. “That’s how we got to the point of everyone believing not guilty.”
“We decided there’s just no other place to go,” the juror said.
“Because of the only two options you had: The second-degree murder or manslaughter?” Cooper asked. “You felt neither applied.”
“Right. Well, because of the heat of the moment and the Stand Your Ground,” she said. “He had a right to defend himself. If he felt threatened that his life was going to be taken away from him or he was going to have bodily harm, he had a right.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the Florida statute number of the Stand Your Ground law. The correct statute number: 776.013.