George Zimmerman, the accused murderer of Trayvon Martin, almost certainly will eventually face a jury. And what if that jury is all white?
A recent Duke University study showed that all white juries in Florida were more likely to convict a black defendant than mixed ethnic juries. Though Zimmerman isn’t black, the defense almost certainly will pull out all stops to make the case that Zimmerman was the real victim and that Martin was the aggressor. In essence, this means that jurors will be asked to do a defendant-and-victim-role reversal and put Martin on trial.
The massive barrage of digs, innuendoes and slanders of Martin’s character and actions that fateful night has been relentless since the killing. So the rule that black defendants inevitably get the short end of the jury stick will be very much in play in the case against Zimmerman.
That’s where the danger of an all white jury comes in the Martin slaying. It could easily happen. Two years ago, an Equal Justice Initiative report found racial discrimination in jury selection is still rampant, even blatant. A Supreme Court ruling, and other court rulings that ban all white or non-black juries, have been in far too many cases no more than paper decisions that have had little effect in ensuring a diverse jury in cases involving black defendants. The same holds true where blacks have been the victims, and whites or non-blacks the defendants, as is the case with Zimmerman.
The report found that prosecutors and judges in eight Southern states used a litany of dodges, tactics and legal ploys to outright exclude blacks from juries, or whittle the number of blacks on juries down. In capital cases, some jurisdictions don’t even go through the legal pretense of trying to get a racially balanced jury.
In North Carolina, at least 31 current death row defendants were sentenced by all-white juries. A new North Carolina state law, the Racial Justice Act, and a recent courageous ruling by an African American judge to overturn the death sentence of a convicted black murderer under the act, drew national attention to the blatant bias in all white jury decided cases.
The report also found that a racially diverse jury weighed evidence and testimony longer and more carefully, brought different perspectives and life experiences to the deliberations, and made fewer factual errors. These are crucial factors in the rare cases where cops are charged with killing young black or Hispanics.
A jury with no blacks, composed of mostly older, middle-class whites, and non-black ethnics, is much more likely to believe the testimony of police and prosecution witnesses than black witnesses, defendants, or even the victims.
Prosecutors have a big task in trying to overcome pro-police attitudes and the negative racial stereotypes. Two Penn State University studies on racial perceptions and stereotypes, one in 2003 and a follow-up in 2008, found that many whites are likely to associate pictures of blacks with violent crimes, and in some cases where crimes were not committed by blacks they misidentified the perpetrator as an African American.
In three major racially charged cases in past years where blacks were the victims either beaten or killed by white cops Rodney King, Oscar Grant and Sean Bell, defense attorneys depicted all three men as the aggressors who posed a threat to the officers. They played up and exaggerated their run-ins with the law to depict young blacks as crime prone, menacing figures. The idea was to subtly and openly play on the prejudices, stereotypes, and negative beliefs of many white jurors toward young blacks.
Even when the victim has no criminal record and poses no threat to officers, the negative racial typecast still kicks in. This was the case when white jurors acquitted the four New York City cops tried for gunning down African immigrant Amadou Diallo in 1999. They claimed that they feared for their lives.
Legal experts blame the paucity of blacks on many juries not on deliberate racial discrimination, but on the paltry number of blacks in the jury pool, changing demographics (the city is majority Hispanic, Asian and white), and the failure of blacks to heed jury summons.
This begs the issue. It doesn’t much matter how few or how many blacks are in the jury pool, if prosecutors (or defense attorneys when the accused is white and victim black) use a storehouse of challenges, questionnaires and profiles to systematically strike blacks from a jury. And sometimes, they don’t even bother with the ploys.
The Dallas Morning News revealed in 2006 that Dallas prosecutors systematically dumped blacks from juries for years. The Supreme Court tossed the conviction of Texas death row inmate Thomas Miller-El based on a Dallas prosecutor’s brazen racial jury sanitizing. Yet prosecutors still try to get as many whites, and as few blacks as possible, on juries.
The Zimmerman case jury may be fair and impartial. But to pretend that racial bias doesn’t exist in racially charged trials is self-serving and dangerous. His case could again cast an ugly glare on jury race bias.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.