“I felt bad that we couldn’t give them the verdict that they wanted. But legally, we couldn’t do that.” – Juror B37, to Anderson Cooper of CNN.
The six women who served on the jury that acquitted George Zimmerman had one thing in common. They each received a summons calling them to jury duty.
They didn’t apply. They didn’t campaign. If they were like many Americans, they considered the summons an inconvenience and hoped either to get sent home quickly or to be assigned to a short, one-day no-brainer trial.
In Florida, the law says jurors whose employers agree to continue paying their salaries while they serve will receive no compensation from the state for the first three days of a trial. After that, they get a whopping $30 per day. Those whose employers won’t pay, or who are unemployed, get $15 for the first three days and $30 thereafter.
In this case the trial lasted three weeks, during which jurors were housed at a hotel without any access to television, newspapers or the Internet. They could use a cell phone once a day to keep in touch with family.
Demonstrations dotted the land on the day after the six-woman jury decided Zimmerman was not guilty of second-degree murder. While these were mostly peaceful, violence broke out in Los Angeles and Oakland. It is true, as many have said in recent days, that the nation needs to have a frank discussion about race relations. Regardless of whether race played a role in how Zimmerman or Trayvon Martin acted, racial fears, assumptions and allegations of unfair stereotypes hung over the courtroom like the oppressive heat of a muggy Florida day in July.
But what should such an honest discussion include? Wouldn’t it have to involve understanding why African American men make up such a disproportionate percentage of those who find themselves in the criminal justice system? Black non-Hispanic men are imprisoned at the rate of 4,347 per 100,000, compared to 678 per 100,000 for white males, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. This, in turn, must lead to a host of other discussions, including about how the nation’s system of public education is failing African Americans and other minorities, putting them on the wrong footing for jobs and careers later in life. And the discussion can’t be complete without a frank look at African Americans and the traditional family. According to 2010 statistics, 72 percent of black babies are born to unwed mothers.
While there certainly are examples of children who succeed in single-parent homes, the evidence is clear that the vast majority of such children face disadvantages in school and a greater likelihood of experiencing a variety of societal ills, including a greater risk of involvement in substance abuse and crime than for those raised in two-parent families. What can be done to remedy this?
I don’t hear a lot of people talking about this in relation to the discussion we all need to share. Nor do I hear a lot of people talking about the nation’s overall rate of about 40 percent of babies being born to single mothers and what it likely means for the nation’s future.
But if we need a good chat on race, it is also true that the nation needs a frank and honest discussion about the criminal justice system, its rules and parameters, and the reasons juries and their verdicts deserve respect, even from the losing side. People need to understand why the jury felt it couldn’t give any other verdict than it did, despite the wishes of so many.
Jury trials are essential to government by the people. The nation’s founders established them as safeguards against tyranny and as a way to educate the nation on the responsibilities of citizenship. Absent compelling evidence that jurors disregarded their charge or acted capriciously, the nation can’t afford to attack them.
Because as the six women finally get to go home, judges everywhere continue the frustrating task of compelling new people to serve, knowing their lives could be changed forever. As with so many institutions in a democracy, juries work only when people willingly participate, and if you aren’t willing to serve, you really shouldn’t complain.