Cards on table, I don’t know whether the verdict in State of Florida vs. George Zimmerman was… Is ‘correct’ the right word? What does it mean for a verdict to be ‘correct’? Is a verdict correct when a person who is in fact guilty is found guilty, and when a person who is in fact innocent is found not guilty? Or is a verdict correct merely when all the legal processes are correctly followed?
When Zimmerman was found not guilty of the murder or manslaughter of Trayvon Martin, social media erupted in an outpouring of rage. More than just a response to this particular circumstance, a lot of the rage came from anger at a system which fails to protect African Americans and other minorities. When analysing these sorts of issues, it is easy to trivialise or marginalise the relevance of that anger.
Critiquing these kinds of trials is therefore difficult. The public demands justice but has a very rigid understanding of what that justice will look like. When that fails to occur, we see outrage.
For people who are outraged at the outcome, we have to wonder what the point of a trial was for them. We the public knew that Zimmerman was guilty. Any outcome other than a guilty verdict was therefore illegitimate. We have been denied justice. Trayvon Martin has been denied justice.
The competence, relevance, and appropriateness of juries is a longstanding question in legal theory. I admit to an element of elitism in my argument: were I to be on trial for some sort of crime, I would much prefer a single judge (who is more likely to have a similar cultural background to me, to be honest) than to run my chances with a jury. In the age of social media, the opportunities for juries to go completely rogue have proliferated. In a report prepared for the Victorian Government, a group of academics identified a number of ‘challenges’ presented by social media, including:
Jurors using social media to seek responses or advice about the case A UK juror was dismissed from a child abduction and sexual assault trial after she asked her Facebook ‘friends’ to help her decide on the verdict. “I don’t know which way to go, so I’m holding a poll,” she wrote. This was discovered prior to the jury starting its deliberations. The trial continued in her absence. [Source: Johnson, Keyzer, et al., Juries and Social Media]
Even without social media, the competence of juries has been under attack. Earlier this year, the list of questions asked by the jurors in the Vicky Pryce trial was published raising some concern about the fairness of the trial:
1. Can a juror come to a verdict based on a reason that was not presented in court and has no facts or evidence to support it either from the prosecution or defence?
2. Can we speculate about events at the time Vicky Pryce signed the form [saying she was the driver] or what was in her head at that time?
The judge said that the answer to both questions was ” firmly no”. They were entitled to draw inferences from reliable facts but not speculate, which was guesswork.
8. Would religious conviction be a good enough reason for a wife feeling that she had no choice, ie she promised to obey her husband in her wedding vows and he had ordered her to do something and she felt she had to obey?
The judge said the question was not for this case. And Pryce had not suggested any such reasoning was behind her decision to take the points. [Source: ‘Vicky Pryce jury can reach majority verdict, says judge‘, The Guardian]
And thus we’re back to the Zimmerman trial. Was the jury competent to decide the case? Were they (as several commentators have asserted thus far) actually a group of racists? Why didn’t the jury know that Zimmerman was clearly guilty when the rest of us who have skimmed the headlines knew that he was guilty?
Nobody is going to stick their flag in the idea that juries are absolutely correct and beyond reproach; at the same time, are we ready to abandon the idea that juries know better than the public at large who receive their information through a sensationalist, ratings-hungry media? Should we get rid of our intuitions about being judged by a group of our peers and revert to a system where a judge decides alone? What is the balance?
We have the technology to enable every person to vote on the outcome of a trial. Should we replace juries with opinion polls where every person over the age of 18 gets an opportunity to have a say in the verdict? If not, why are we happy to choose a parliament based on a similar process but aren’t happy to obtain just outcomes the same way?
And this is the paradox of cases like the Zimmerman trial. We don’t trust the public at large. We don’t trust a group of our peers. We don’t trust judges acting alone. We think guilty people should be punished and we are dead certain that we know who the guilty people are (but we, in a fit of doublethink, also know that the media lies to us and sensationalises issues).
Right now, I know that I wouldn’t want to be a single one of the jurors who decided that case. The public was never going to let them do their job.