In today’s United States, is a jury of one’s peers possible?
Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 23, 2013
WASHINGTON — The headlines were immediate: All-women jury chosen for George Zimmerman’s trial.
What is the likelihood that you, a man, would face a jury of all women?
What’s your bet that the victim in the case, an unarmed African-American teenager, will receive justice from a panel that is five-sixths white?
We depend on reassuring answers to such questions, but our headlines belie our skepticism. Do we really trust our peers?
To briefly recount, Zimmerman, 29, is charged with the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman, a volunteer watchman, saw Martin walking through his neighborhood, thought he looked suspicious, and the rest is familiar to anyone reading this.
What makes the jury interesting, other than the head-snapping reporting of its composition, is that it forces to the fore all the implications we try to avoid: Do gender, race, ethnicity (age, sexual orientation, and so on) matter when it comes to judging one another? We like to think not, yet, admit it, the reason the all-women jury made headlines is because it raises those very questions.
Indeed, those questions are at the heart of the prosecution’s case.
Zimmerman, who avers that he acted in self-defense, is accused of profiling Martin and acting accordingly. Because Martin was African-American and wearing a hooded shirt (it was raining), Zimmerman presumably took him to be dangerous — inherently so, not because of anything overtly threatening.
Martin, en route from a convenience store back to his own home, was, to Zimmerman’s eyes, wandering, aimlessly. Ergo: Doesn’t belong? Up to no good? We now know that Martin was talking on the phone to his girlfriend, perhaps daydreaming a little, meandering in his conversation rather than “acting suspiciously.”
Would a white teen similarly attired have been adjudged suspicious and potentially dangerous by Zimmerman? The prosecutors think not. Yet, we also know that Zimmerman, who is Hispanic, worked as a volunteer with black youth. He wasn’t by any apparent standard a racist. But he decided that someone who looked like Martin didn’t belong in a neighborhood where several break-ins recently had occurred. Was his deduction logical or racist — or both?
Consciously or not, we all make such judgments every day. We cross the street to avoid someone whose dress, behavior or some other signal makes us feel less secure. It’s human nature deeply rooted in thousands of years of survival.
Understanding this is no justification for harmful actions, obviously, but behavior can’t be judged independent of context. This is the essence of what Zimmerman’s jury will have to consider. Under the circumstances, might a reasonable person have responded as Zimmerman did?
And what about that jury?
Most likely, news of the all-women panel prompted involuntary thoughts: Can such a jury fairly judge a man? Would we ask the same were the defendant a female and the jury all-male?
Will five white women be inclined to side with Zimmerman because of their similar skin pigmentation and possible experiences with race?
We naturally recoil at such questions because they offend our sense of justice. We trust juries because there is no better alternative. By our consent to the process, we are putting our faith in the better angels of man’s nature. We console ourselves with the knowledge that jurors typically take their jobs seriously and try to be fair.
But history also reminds us that intentions are not reliable predictors of behavior. We tend our biases in secret, sometimes even from ourselves, and we project our own experiences onto others. Even the president of the United States stepped forward to identify himself with Martin, about whom he said, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”
What is this if not racial identification? And is the president’s statement itself prejudicial to jurors who, wanting not to appear racist, may be more inclined to convict?
In our racially diverse, proudly multicultural nation, it isn’t clear whether a jury of one’s peers is possible. Whatever the outcome, the Zimmerman trial will force us to confront our own biases — a necessary step toward the aspiration we call blind justice.