The Zimmerman Verdict and Race: A Brief Criminological Assessment

Dr. Jason Michael Williams I Criminal Justice I Analysis I August 5th, 2013

After the verdict was read to the world that Saturday evening, I said to myself that Monday would bring a hurricane of legal responses to the case outcome specifically on the role (if any) that race played before and throughout the trial. Having said that, I also knew that none of these dialogues would involve a criminologist - someone who could contextualize the role of race beyond the scope of the law in these proceedings.

Cable stations like CNN, HLN, and MSNBC have invited on an assortment of legal experts throughout and after the trial to help with contextualizing some of the aspects of the trial, however; an issue they could not hit on in any aggressive and tangible manner was the issue of race. Why is this? Because many lawyers, by default, have a natural appreciation for the American justice system. For example, many lawyers are not aggressively conscious regarding the connection between court actors (judge, lawyer, juror, and witnesses) and hidden racisms during adjudication because to them case outcomes are based on the evidence and nothing else, thus the machinery of justice is impartial.

However, the theory that the American justice system is fair and impartial has long been debunked. Decades upon decades of social science research have shown that impartiality in the justice system is a theory at best, yet the majority of Americans continue to believe the opposite at the apparent expense of others who are every day targets of this machinery of injustice and social death.

As a criminal justice professor, one of the main aspects of the justice system that I often discuss in my courses is that it's based on an adversarial model (e.g. may the best man win). Therefore, one can easily argue that the American justice system is not designed to get to the truth. Meanwhile, notwithstanding the logic of the said argument, many lawyers and Americans continue to advocate quite the opposite. They advocate that the American system of justice is a model for the world.

The problem with society is that it fails to include the perspective of those who are in opposition with the way in which the justice system operates. When one simplifies this conflict of perspectives it becomes clear that this split is predominantly based on race, although some may also implicate class. Sadly, this conflict reflects that the majority of the country uncritically accepts the theory that justice is fair and colorblind in spite of what social science research has historically shown. Meanwhile, those who fall prey to this machinery of injustice are blamed for their victimization as the system is constantly legitimated each time someone is convicted because most people refuse to believe the system can be unfair.

Regarding race and the Zimmerman verdict, a point missed within the race discourse is the role of the jury. Although the actions of Zimmerman are questionable if one focuses in on his language in the 911 tape, could race not have been an issue in the jury box too? Could it be that the jury saw race and included it within their assessment of the facts? Juror B-37 had engaged in an interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper that had resulted in major social-media backlash (e.g., see, Mediaite for summary/videos). In fact, many people believed that this particular juror could easily validate prior assumptions that the mostly white jury would eventually side with Zimmerman. There were moments in her dialogue when she clearly appeared sympathetic to the defendant while having total disregard to Martin, who was unarmed and murdered.

Consider and analyze the following quotes from Mediaite, who provided a brief transcript of the interview:

Quote 1

If there was one witness who the juror didn't find entirely credible it was Trayvon Martin 's friend Rachel Jeantel . "I didn't think it was credible, but I felt sorry for her. She didn't ask to be in this place. She wanted to go. She didn't want to be any part of this case. I think she felt inadequate toward everyone because of her education and her communication skills. I just felt sadness for her." She added, "She was embarrassed by being there, because of her education and her communication skills, that she just wasn't a good witness."

Quote 2

Cooper asked the juror specifically about Jeantel's "creepy-ass cracker" statement that drew wide attention during the trial. She said she thought it was "probably the truth" and that "Trayvon probably said that" but said she didn'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."

Quote 3

In the second part of the interview, the juror told Cooper she thought Zimmerman's "heart was in the right place" on the night he shot and killed Martin and the only thing he is guilty of is "not using good judgment [sic]." She said she thought he had "every right to carry a gun," adding, "I think it's everyone's right to carry a gun."

Quote 4

When Cooper asked if the juror thought Zimmerman "really felt his life was in danger" she responded. "I do. I really do." When he asked if she thought Martin "threw the first punch," she said, "I think he did." Despite those assertions, she admitted that among she and the other jurors, "Nobody knew exactly what happened."

Quote 1 describes the utter use of stereotypes that this juror, and possibly other jurors, had used when contextualizing Jeantel. Unfortunately, it is very possible that those stereotypes clouded this juror's judgment regarding the validity of Jeantel's testimony. Remember, Jeantel was a major witness to the altercation because she was the last person to speak to Martin. Nonetheless, the only thing this juror remembers regarding Jeantel's credibility is her "bad communication skills" and "education," nothing about the facts of the case. Clearly, this juror did not consider that Jeantel's testimony did, in fact, match the official timeline of the event. How is that for being objective, right? Nevertheless, theoretically, jurors are not capable of this.

Quote 2 describes the juror's quick decision to believe that Martin did, in fact, use the word "cracker." However, what is more important about this quote is the extent to which she associates the use of this word with the everyday lives and environment of people like them (meaning Blacks). Clearly, to this juror, Blacks are foreign to her and they live radically different and decaying lifestyles in which they cannot help themselves. Also, she claimed that the use of "cracker" by Martin was not racial but is sure to paint Blacks as separate from Whites by describing how they live, thus making an implicit racial distinction between herself and Martin. Her responses here indicate that she is more likely to include these stereotypes in her assessment of the facts.

Quote 3 simply shows that at the very least this juror did believe that Zimmerman exercised poor judgment, which is also indicative regarding the value of Martin's life to this juror. However, she did not feel that Zimmerman's misjudgment was criminal in any way. She later shows her allegiance to the Second Amendment, which may also have racial implications because many argue that the gun debate is smothered with racial overtones. She also states that Zimmerman's "heart was in the right place"-insensitive, much? This quote shows that somewhere within the mind of this juror she knew Zimmerman was wrong even though she admitted from the very beginning that she voted not guilty. One could easily argue that the facts did not mean much to this juror.

Quote 4 displays that this juror believed overwhelmingly that Zimmerman was not the aggressor. She believes this even though she admits that, among the jurors, nobody knew for sure what happened that night. Surprisingly, she did not give thought to the possible fact that Martin could have been defending himself against Zimmerman either. Why did this juror, and obviously others, believe that Martin was the aggressor in the face of admitted confusion about the night in question? Perhaps Martin's skin was too dark, which made him the default aggressor.

Some people will read my assessment of the quotes and say they may be likely but not necessarily true, and they would be correct. However, they also cannot deny the qualitative significance that jurors' mindsets can hold in case outcomes. Again, social science research continues to show that implicit biases or extra-legal factors (e.g., racial stereotypes, etc) continue to play a large role within the American justice system. It is also important to note that the above quotes are small snapshots into this juror's mindset that could have played a role in her assessment of the facts. The full transcript is more troubling as this juror exhibits many more hints regarding her mindset and bias toward Zimmerman. It should also be noted that, at various times, the juror completely misrepresented some of the facts of the case, which makes one wonder if the facts even mattered to this juror. Furthermore, this juror is also married to a lawyer, which could have impacted her and other jurors in their deliberations. Clearly this juror is pro-Zimmerman. Therefore, it is very possible that she backed her perspective on the fact that her husband is a lawyer, which could have had an impact on how her fellow jurors saw the facts as well.

In closing, this small assessment drives so many Americans to lose faith in the justice system. Many people understand that, in a racist society, justice can never be equal. Justice is not blind so long as others (in this case jurors) continue to believe that extra-legal factors supersede the facts. It is the implicit biases held within the justice system on all levels that sustains racial disparities within the criminal justice system. This is the reality from which the outcry from the verdict derives. It derives from a system's inability to accept the decades upon decades of social science research proving racial bias within the justice system.

Sadly, the justice system refuses to provide a contextualization of race outside the scope of the law, and this is the point from which many legal analysts draw their conclusions regarding the race question (e.g., some lawyers may say the evidence does not support that race was an issue). Some people cannot and refuse to see how the jury box can ruin a trial because, to them, the jury is theoretically impartial. Theoretically, members of the jury cannot be bias and must leave extra-legal factors out of their assessment, yet Juror B-37 shows otherwise. To many people, once the jury decides the trial is over. The justice system should be respected for working as it was designed to work and everyone should resume his or her life. At the very least, the verdict could have been manslaughter, but as some have argued in social-media, Martin may have been the wrong complexion for protection. Once again, extra-legal factors have decided a verdict. Nonetheless, more analyses on the (un)equal application of "stand your ground" laws may be helpful in debating the validity of "stand your ground." Until a judicial revolution occurs, many will continue to ask the age-old question: will the justice system ever consider Blacks as human beings deserving of protection and justice? Remember, one cannot assess the outcome of this trail without involving the social/criminological framework that surrounds the administration of justice in America.

Published in the Spring/Summer 2013 edition of the Race & Justice Scholar Newsletter.