Intelligent men and women must not avoid jury duty. Please consider what happens when you do, writes Andrew Scott.
In the wake of the not-guilty verdict for George Zimmerman, many of us have questioned the makeup of this particular jury. Why was it comprised entirely of women? And why only six members? (Florida and the five other states that do this—you’re weird.)
Then, the public recoiled at the news that Juror B37 signed on with a literary agent and planned to write a book; the Twitter backlash was effective, though, as both the juror and the agent released statements explaining that they’d changed their minds. This juror faithfully took notes the entire time, so one must wonder when the idea of writing a book about the case first popped into her head.
The other jurors have begun to distance themselves from Juror B37’s comments in her first post-trial interview, where—among many other revelations—she claimed that the verdict hinged on Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, even though it wasn’t used in Zimmerman’s defense.
She also said the 911 operator “egged [Zimmerman] on,” which is the exact opposite of what the operator actually said:
Dispatcher: Are you following him?
Dispatcher: O.K., we don’t need you to do that.
Do you get the sense that at least this juror—one-sixth of the jury—wasn’t really paying attention, perhaps because she was already thinking of how the unfolding events should be recounted in the book she planned to write? Do you think she worried about unconsciously shaping the verdict based on what might make for a better book or more lucrative book deal?
At least she won’t write a book now. That doesn’t change the verdict, or the potential book deal’s effects on how she perceived the information presented in court.
For me, the trial underscores the importance of having intelligent, well-intentioned, and unflinchingly fair citizens on the jury. In this country, most of us complain about jury selection. Many of us try to get out of it—it’s a hassle, a burden. Few Americans under the age of 50 talk about it as a civic duty.
I have been summoned for jury duty four times, though I’ve never sat on a jury. Most of the time, I haven’t even made it into the courtroom. Most of these court cases ended with a last-minute agreement. I wasn’t especially keen on being picked for any of these juries, but who is? Do we really want juries composed of people who seek to stand in judgment of their fellow citizens?
In the weeks after I graduated from college, I was interviewed alongside other members of a jury pool. The case involved students who were allegedly attacked by other young men my age. Even though I was (more or less) the same age as both the alleged attackers and victims, I was immediately dismissed once the attorneys learned I had just graduated. Everyone else in the courtroom was at least fifteen years older. I didn’t understand why I’d been dismissed if assembling a jury of the defendants’ peers was the goal, but that phrase is not actually in the Sixth Amendment:
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.
The language—“an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed”—is where we inject the idea of a jury of one’s peers, but the legal requirement is far broader than what we normally consider a fair definition of that word.
A few years ago, I was again interviewed alongside potential jurors, this time in a big city. Before he got to me, the defense attorney spoke with several others in the room. We were seated where the actual jury would fulfill its obligations. The defense attorney asked a lot of questions about the reliability of security cameras, since there was apparently footage of his client stealing liquor from a grocery store.
When it was my turn, the prosecutor began by asking questions about my job—I’m an English professor—and I knew what was coming. None of the others had a job so publicly associated with the pursuit of knowledge. He asked me a few other questions, including ones about hypothetical scenarios that had little to do with the court case and everything to do with figuring out if I could detect his moves on the fly. The judge had already asked him several times to reword certain questions. After I called out a few of his rhetorical choices and the vagueness of some of his words, I was kindly shown the door. The last thing a defense attorney wants is an intelligent juror. Far better is a juror who carries reasonable (or unreasonable) doubt regarding nearly every element of American life.
I once knew a lawyer who, when interviewing a jury pool, would say: “Is my client innocent or guilty?” Inevitably, the potential juror would say, “I don’t know.” And the lawyer would respond: “My client is innocent. He’s innocent until proven guilty.” He was quite effective in his defense of college students arrested for public intoxication and other lesser crimes.
I don’t plan to commit a crime anytime soon, but should it come to pass that a jury one day has a hand in my fate, I hope those individuals will be less concerned with what deals they might make after the trial. I hope they’ll follow the court’s instructions regarding what’s deemed permissible in court and won’t vote based on information hyped on TV. Ideally, a jury should be comprised of people who read at least 20 books a year and don’t watch 24/7 news networks, though I know that’s asking a lot. (Juror B37 bragged that she never reads—like a lot of people who don’t read, though, she thought she’d write a book.)
Eighteen people were interviewed for Zimmerman’s jury. Each side was allowed to strike six candidates from the jury pool. Maybe—and this is a possibility—there were even worse individuals in the jury pool. Can you imagine?
How different is your town from Sanford, Florida? Think about that the next time you want to get out of jury duty.