Did Racism Skew the Zimmerman Verdict?

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July 17 2013 4:02 PM

Jury Rigged

Did racism skew the Zimmerman verdict?

George Zimmerman leaves the courtroom at the end of the day during his trial in Seminole circuit court July 12, 2013 in Sanford, Florida.
George Zimmerman during his trial in Sanford, Fla.

Photo by Getty Images

One of the six jurors in the Trayvon Martin case, identified only as juror B37, has come forward to explain George Zimmerman’s acquittal. Her account, presented on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 over the last two nights and in a statement today, clarifies many things. Some of her revelations are shocking. Many are illuminating. Here’s what we can learn from them so far.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right. Follow him on Twitter.

1. She’s one of the most pro-Zimmerman jurors. Bear this in mind before you impute her views to others. She told Cooper the jury’s initial vote was one for second-degree murder, two for manslaughter, and three for acquittal. She was in the acquittal camp. Nearly everything she told Cooper matched what the defense had argued. Four of the other five jurors have issued a statement warning, “the opinions of Juror B37, expressed on the Anderson Cooper show were her own, and not in any way representative of the jurors listed below." Also see Dahlia Lithwick’s thorough examination of this juror’s peculiarities.

2. Her understanding of racial bias is narrow. She said race was never discussed in the jury room. Beyond that, she didn’t purport to speak for anyone else. When Cooper asked whether Zimmerman had racially profiled Martin, she said, “I don't think he profiled him as a racial thing,” and “I don't think race had anything to do with this trial.” She gave three reasons why Zimmerman’s suspicion wasn’t racial. First, the neighborhood had suffered many robberies, and Zimmerman was a watchman, so it was his job to look for possible criminals. Second, Martin’s behavior, by itself, was suspicious: “He was cutting through the back. It was raining. [Zimmerman] said he [Martin] was looking in houses as he was walking down the road. Kind of just not having a purpose to where he was going. He was stopping and starting. … [It was] dark at night, raining, and anybody would think anybody walking down the road stopping and turning and looking … is suspicious.” Third, given this behavior, Zimmerman “would have reacted the exact same way” if Martin had been white.

Those three claims, as stated, are reasonable grounds to conclude that Zimmerman’s suspicion wasn’t racial. The question is whether they’re true. Would Zimmerman have called 911 if Martin were white? My guess is that he would. But if you tweak one more element of the equation—change the hoodie to a button-down shirt, for instance—I bet you get a different result. That’s how racial profiling works. Race tilts your brain, perhaps slightly, and often below the level of your awareness.

Juror B37 shows little awareness. It’s hard to sit through the trial of a neighborhood watchman for shooting an unarmed black kid, on a jury with no black members, and come away saying race had nothing to do with the trial. Even if your heart is pure, a basic understanding of how the case would look to many black people should make you temper that statement. This doesn’t make juror B37 bigoted or callous. She cried genuine tears for “Trayvon” even as she sympathized with “George.” But it does make her unlikely to recognize subtler levels of bias.

Cooper asked her about Martin’s comment to a friend that Zimmerman looked like a “creepy-ass cracker.” She shrugged off the remark: “I don't think it's really racial. I think it's just everyday life, the type of life that they live, and how they're living, in the environment that they're living in.” They, they, they. Not many white kids use the term “cracker.” They, in this context, evidently means black. When you see a group of people as they, it can affect many things, including your guesses about behavior and motivation. In this case, those guesses were crucial, since Martin isn’t around to explain what he did.

It’s worth noting, however, that Juror B37 described Zimmerman as “Spanish or Puerto Rican,” which she distinguished from “white.” He, too, may have been a they. The difference is that she didn’t have the same freedom to guess at his movements and motives. He got to tell his own story.

3. Several jurors thought Zimmerman was morally culpable. “There was a couple of them in there that wanted to find him guilty of something,” the juror said. “I wanted to find him guilty of not using his senses.” He “went overboard” and “got in a little bit too deep, which he shouldn't have been there.” She concluded:  “He's guilty of not using good judgment. When he was in the car and he called 911, he shouldn't have gotten out of that car.”

This refutes the claim from Zimmerman’s lawyers that the verdict fully exonerates their client. But Juror B37 also noticed details that undermine the prosecution’s portrait of him as a cowboy. “The 911 operator also, when he was talking to him, kind of egged him on,” she argued. “He should have said, Stay in your car,’ not ‘Can you see where he's gone?’” (In the transcript, the dispatcher says, “Let me know if this guy does anything else,” and asks, “Which way is he running?” But when he finds out Zimmerman is following the suspect, he adds, “We don’t need you to do that.”)

4. She thinks Zimmerman told some lies, but they don’t matter. “With all the evidence of the phone calls and all the witnesses,” she said, “I think George was pretty consistent and told the truth, basically. I'm sure there were some fabrications, enhancements, but I think pretty much it happened the way George said it happened.” Apparently the prosecution’s focus on discrepancies in his accounts didn’t work. She had decided that the fibs were small and that he was basically an honest guy.

5. She thinks Martin started the fight. Nobody but Martin and Zimmerman saw this part of the incident, so it requires inference and speculation. When Cooper asked whether Martin threw the first punch, she said yes. “Trayvon decided that he wasn't going to let [Zimmerman] scare him and get the one-over-up on him, or something. And I think Trayvon got mad and attacked him.” She assigned much of the blame to Martin: “He played a huge role in his death … when George confronted him, and 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.” Come back indicates that she thinks Martin wasn’t cornered. She thinks he chose the altercation. She told Cooper that she thought the other jurors felt that way, too. But she doesn’t know.

6. She used forensic evidence to infer what happened in the fight. When Cooper asked why she thought Martin threw the first punch, she cited “the evidence of on the T, on the sidewalk, where George says he was punched—there was evidence of his flashlight and keys there, and then a little bit further down, there was a flashlight that he was carrying.” When Cooper asked why she believed that in the end Zimmerman was sufficiently afraid to justify using his gun in self-defense, she answered, “I believe because of his injuries.” She said Zimmerman’s head had hit the concrete “enough to get damage, bruising, swelling. I think it was definitely enough to make you fear when you're in that situation.” And this, in turn, justified her conclusion that the man whose voice could be heard crying for help on phone recordings was Zimmerman: “Because of the evidence that he was the one that had gotten beaten.” She also cited an eyewitness whose account indicated that Martin had been on top.

All of this reasoning may have followed, not led to, her conclusion. The flashlight doesn’t prove who threw the first punch, and she left out other evidence that casts doubt on Zimmerman’s account of the fight. She may have decided that she trusted Zimmerman, that his story was close enough to the forensic evidence, and therefore she bought the whole thing and interpreted other evidence as supporting it. Her certainty that the person calling for help was Zimmerman, despite an FBI voice expert’s inability to resolve that question, is somewhat jarring.

7. The jury confined its focus to the end of the story. The prosecution emphasized that Martin entered the scene carrying only Skittles and a can of iced tea. Juror B37 found this “ridiculous,” because “anybody can be armed with anything. You can bash somebody's head against a tree or a rock or this concrete.” By the end, in her opinion, Martin did have a weapon: the sidewalk. Zimmerman, on the other hand, had made bad decisions leading to the fight—“He started the ball rolling. He could have avoided the whole situation by staying in the car”—but these didn’t count. Once he got out and followed Martin, “the roles changed.” In the end, “I had no doubt George feared for his life in the situation he was in at the time.” He “had a right to protect himself at that point.”

Juror B37 claimed that this logic drove the deliberations: “We were looking at the self-defense. One of the girls … asked if you can put all the leading things into that one moment, where he feels it's a matter of life or death to shoot this boy, or if it was just at the heat of passion at that moment.” Anderson pressed for clarification:

Juror B37: After hours and hours and hours of deliberating over the law, and reading it over and over and over again, we decided there's just no way … because of the heat of the moment and the Stand Your Ground … Cooper: Even though it's he [Zimmerman] who had gotten out of the car, followed Trayvon Martin, that didn't matter in the deliberations? What mattered was those final seconds, minutes, when there was an altercation, and … in your mind the most important thing was whether or not George Zimmerman felt his life was in danger?
Juror: That's how we read the law. That's how we got to the point of everybody being “not guilty.”
Cooper: So that was the belief of the jury, that you had to zero in on those final minutes/seconds, about the threat that George Zimmerman believed he faced?
Juror: That's exactly what had happened.

That narrowing of the timeline—not race—seems to have been the biggest factor in the acquittal. Zimmerman’s provocations or poor judgments leading to the confrontation were removed from the jury’s calculus. The prosecution was doomed by the law of self-defense as the jury understood it, based on the judge’s instructions. Zimmerman’s attorneys didn’t invoke Florida’s formal proceedings for a “Stand Your Ground” defense. And the case was about much more than that defense, or about race. But the “Stand Your Ground” doctrine, as cited by this juror, plainly influenced the verdict.

8. She thinks Zimmerman should get to keep his gun. Despite her conclusion that Zimmerman “went overboard” and was “guilty of not using good judgment,” the juror dismissed Cooper’s question as to whether Zimmerman should now have a gun. “It doesn't worry me,” she said. “I think he would be more responsible than anybody else on this planet right now.” Strange as it may seem to outsiders, this is how many people steeped in gun culture see the world: Character drives all other questions. A man who has “good in his heart” should be allowed to keep his firearm, even after using poor judgment and killing an unarmed adversary.

Today, juror B37 issued a further statement: "My prayers are with all those who have the influence and power to modify the laws that left me with no verdict option other than 'not guilty' in order to remain within the instructions,” she said. “No other family should be forced to endure what the Martin family has endured.” Whatever else you may think about her or the case, that conclusion seems well-warranted. Several jurors thought Zimmerman should be held accountable for his part in causing the confrontation that led to Martin’s death. On this question, Florida law, as they understood it, barred them from imposing justice. That law should be changed.

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