Why we all deserve blame for bad verdicts

 

The Root

From the moment juror B37 spoke out for the first time about why she voted to acquit George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin, she has been the target of criticism. Her compassion, intellect and motives have all been questioned, by social media and just about every person in my social circle, including me.

Yet for all of the legitimate criticisms that many of us may lodge at juror B37, there is one thing for which she inarguably deserves praise: She did her civic duty by serving on a jury.

Many of us don’t.

Getting out of jury duty is actually a point of pride for many, so much so that there is a common joke about those who do serve on juries: “Twelve people too stupid to get out of jury duty.” There are humorous articles on how to get out of jury duty. One of comedian Sarah Silverman’s most famous (and controversial) jokes revolves around her elaborate plan to evade jury duty. She uses racism as a sort of get-out-of-jury-duty-free card.

But the outcome of the Zimmerman trial reminds us why evading jury duty is no laughing matter, and the racial makeup of juries isn’t, either.

Minorities have historically been underrepresented on juries. Although conscious racism was once the primary reason, today other obstacles play key roles, among them the exclusion of a disproportionate number of black males because of previous felony convictions, as well as issues related to class. Inadequate transportation and childcare options, for example, have been cited as obstacles for potential jurors of color.

The Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Berghuis v. Smith was a setback on the issue of juror diversity, with the high court finding that an all-white jury convicting a minority defendant does not constitute a violation of his constitutional rights.

But perhaps just as troubling as the lack of minorities able to serve is the number of people who avoid juries altogether. Googling “how to get out of jury duty” takes you down the Internet’s equivalent of a black hole, with article after article providing tips from so-called experts on how to do so.

For some reason, not serving on a jury does not bear the same stigma as not voting, and yet both are equally important to our democracy and ensuring that we live in a just society, as the Zimmerman verdict reminds us. Although the racial makeup of the jury is certainly relevant to the trial’s outcome, diverse thought can be just as important as racial and ethnic diversity. Imagine if every person who thinks that his or her job is too important to take time off to serve on a jury did serve.

There’s no guarantee that the outcome in the Zimmerman trial would have been different. But perhaps it would have taken them more time to reach a consensus. When a group of people with different perspectives have a conversation about a tough topic, it tends to inspire vigorous, prolonged debate, something that does not appear to have happened during the deliberations that the Zimmerman jury engaged in.

According to juror B37, the jury did not believe that race was an issue. (It’s worth noting that her fellow jurors have since said she does not speak for them.) I have a hard time believing that race would have been treated as a nonissue had there been a black person — or someone who had spent substantive time with a black person — serving on the jury.

It’s possible that potential jurors who might have shared this perspective with their fellow jurors knew too much about the case in advance to be selected for the jury. But it is also possible that they felt they simply couldn’t afford to take time off of work, read one of the articles on “how to get out jury duty” and succeeded in doing so.

We’ll never know. But what I do know is that in 1955 an all-white jury acquitted two men for the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till — a murder that the men would later confess to in a magazine interview. Now, nearly 60 years later, a jury without a single black person on it acquitted George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin.

So the next time I get called for jury duty, instead of being annoyed and thinking of the inconvenience, I will think of Trayvon Martin and I will treat the summons as what it is: an honorable way to contribute to our democracy, and one of the few things I will ever do that may potentially save, or vindicate, a life.

Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent.

© 2013, The Root

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