With just about everyone and his grandmother responding to the George Zimmerman not guilty verdict, I decided to add my two cents as well. Yet I will not write from the perspective of a news consumer listening to reports from FOX, CNN, et al. Rather, let me give you a different perspective: the view from the jury room.
More than a decade ago I was selected to sit on a jury in a case that was considered “high profile” in our area. It concerned a police officer who had allegedly committed crimes against family members. Like the Zimmerman jury, we were sequestered once deliberations began. We also deliberated for more than 20 hours before we were dismissed as a hung jury.
From my perspective the Zimmerman trial needs to be looked at separate from the emotion stirred up by the likes of Rev. Al Sharpton, Rev. Jesse Jackson, the NAACP, and the rest. It needs to be looked at separate from the obviously biased news media that did its best to portray George Zimmerman as a racist. And yes, as difficult as it is, we must look at the case separate from the emotion of two parents who lost a son.
Make no mistake, we are a nation of laws. Law cannot be interpreted or applied based on emotion. Otherwise the administration of law becomes nothing more than a good old-fashioned lynching. The law must be applied based on the facts, and the facts only.
In order to glean anything positive from this tragedy, we must change our thinking as a nation. Let me offer you the following points based on my own experience. By the way, anyone who has sat on a jury will likely echo these thoughts.
Pay No Attention to the News Media
During my time as a member of the jury, I was not allowed to watch the television news, read newspapers, listen to news on the radio, or ask anyone any news-related questions that might elicit a response regarding the case I was on. So I asked my family to save the newspapers and record newscasts on the VCR (yes, it was that long ago).
Once the case was concluded I helped myself to all those news reports. Much to my surprise, I was shocked to discover that virtually everything reported during the trial was inaccurate. Even the parts the news media got correct were obviously slanted toward the verdict the reporter or newscaster was hoping for.
Whether you like it or not, the truth of the matter is that what is reported on the nightly news is not even close to accurate. It has little, if anything, to do with what actually goes on in the courtroom and in the private room used by the jury. Therefore, trying someone in the court of public opinion via the news media is not only downright stupid, it is not even based in the truth.
You and I have no idea what went on in that courtroom in Sanford, Florida. We have no idea how the jury deliberated, how they viewed the evidence, what questions they asked, etc. Therefore, we have no basis or right to question the verdict — regardless of who is, or was, on trial.
Politics of the Legal System
One of the hardest lessons for me personally was to learn that politicians are heavily invested in the legal system. It may be that in days gone by justice was blind. But that’s no longer the case. At least it wasn’t so on the case I sat on.
Because the defendant was a well-known and respected police officer, there were certain political influences at play, trying to protect the reputation of the city police department and courthouse. Those politics played out most notably in the prosecution of the case. How? Through the prosecutor assigned to it.
It was no secret this prosecutor wanted to run for DA during the next election cycle. I found out later that she trumpeted this case throughout the course of the entire trial for her own political benefit. What’s more, when we ended in a hung jury this woman had the gall to go before the news media and accuse us jury members of shirking our responsibility and not doing our job.
Unfortunately, we ended in a hung jury because she did not prove her case beyond a reasonable doubt. But a hung jury did not work well for her politically, so she was unhappy.
If you look at the details of the George Zimmerman case closely — by which I mean reading the documents for yourself instead of depending on the news media — you’ll discover that the case never should have been brought. Even the ultra-left wing Alan Dershowitz said as much, picking apart the indictment made against Mr. Zimmerman and demonstrating how that indictment did not meet the minimum legal requirements necessary to bring charges.
Make no mistake about it, the George Zimmerman case was, and continues to be, as much about politics as anything else. Whether you approve or disapprove of the verdict, never forget that politicians and political activists who contribute heavily to campaigns were the main players pulling the strings.
The Compromise Verdict
I have to say I was only slightly surprised when the judge in the Zimmerman case gave the jury the option to convict of manslaughter if they could not agree on a conviction of second-degree murder. In legal circles this is known as the “compromise verdict.”
I personally don’t know how a judge can get away with doing that, given the fact that Zimmerman was never charged with manslaughter. Yet it’s a common practice nonetheless.
In the case I was involved in we were given a compromise verdict when the judge charged us following closing arguments. The defendant in this case was charged with at least a dozen crimes, all of which we had the option of finding him not guilty, guilty, or guilty of lesser charges.
Now, you may think a compromise verdict is a good tool for juries. Let me explain to you why it’s not.
On the second day of our deliberations we reached early afternoon and it was clear the stress and strain was beginning to wear on some of my colleagues. By dinner time there were several jury members who didn’t know whether the defendant was innocent or guilty, but believed it was our responsibility to convict him of something — anything — just so we could wrap it up and go home.
They were convinced that he must have done something or else he would not have been in court. They were also convinced, because of his demeanor on the witness stand, that he must be guilty of something; even if that something wasn’t what he was being charged with.
My friends, that’s not the way the law works. The prosecution did not prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. The jury does not have the convenience of convicting just because they believe they need to do something. They certainly don’t have the right to convict simply so they can wrap it up and go home. Offering the jury a compromise verdict provides the temptation to do both of those things.
Just as a side note, the second jury to sit on our case ended up with the same problem we had: the prosecution did not prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The only difference is that the second jury settled on a compromise verdict.
Jumping to Conclusions
The last thing I want to address has less to do with the case itself and more to do with you and I. I can best explain it by telling you another part of my own story.
In our case, I was one of three holding out for a not guilty verdict. Toward the end of deliberations one of the other jury members asked me if I refused to convict because I was a Christian and my religious views would not allow me to do so. It was a dumb question, but valid in his eyes nonetheless.
My response to him is just as applicable today, so I’ll share it with you. As calmly as I could, I stood up and addressed the jury, telling them the following:
Our country’s legal system is based on two things: binding law and the presumption of innocence. The law clearly states that the prosecution must prove its case beyond reasonable doubt and that the defendant is presumed innocent until proven otherwise.
It is not up to the defendant to prove himself innocent. The law says he IS innocent until the evidence proves otherwise. In our case, as in the Zimmerman case, the prosecution failed to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Therefore, according to the law, the defendant cannot be convicted.
To make my point I then challenged my fellow jury members to put themselves in the place of the defendant. Let me challenge you likewise.
Let’s say you are arrested and charged with a crime. Do you want the jury to follow the law? Do you want them to presume you innocent until the facts prove otherwise? Do you want them to simply convict you of something because news reports portray your guilt? Do you want them to convict you after 20 long hours simply so they can go home and enjoy the rest of the weekend?
I stood my ground in our case because it is simply wrong to convict a defendant without the proper evidence. If that means the guilty party gets away scott-free, so be it. It’s far better than a system that convicts with impunity because of politics, convenience, or money.
If you were in George Zimmerman’s shoes, you would expect no less from a jury of your peers. So would I.