Books, Guns / Firearms, Jury Duty, Trials

The Rise and Fall of Juror B37 and How Verdicts Are Made

The fallout from the Zimmerman trial continues. A lot of digital ink has been spilled (including on this very site) arguing the meaning of the verdict in the context of race and the law.

Beyond the “Grrr! Murderer!” or “Derp! Self-defense!” discussion, the trial offers an opportunity to examine how the sausage of a verdict is made.

Juror B37, one of the illustrious six who acquitted George Zimmerman, had a meteoric rise — and subsequent fall — over the last 24 hours. B37 is the only juror to speak publicly about the verdict, and notwithstanding your feelings about the result, her tale highlights how lawyers consistently misunderstand the psychology of jurors, especially women jurors, and how juries take the carefully crafted jury instructions judges and lawyers spend hours poring over and go their own way…

1. Women are not a bundle of stereotypes.

Enter Juror B37. This juror, the wife of a lawyer, burst onto the scene yesterday with news that she was going to give us all the real scoop on the jury deliberations. This prompted some enterprising media-types to look back at videotape of what she said way back before she got placed on the jury:

– “I don’t listen to the radio” or read the internet, she said. Her only news about the case came from the Today show. “Newspapers are used in the parrot’s cage. Not even read,” she said. “It’s been so long since I even read one. The only time I see em is when I’m putting them down on the floor.”

– During questioning, she referred multiple times to “riots” in Sanford after Trayvon Martin was killed. “I knew there was rioting, but I guess [the authorities] had it pretty well organized,” she says at one point. In fact, despite a great deal of salivating anticipation by the media both before and after the trial, there were no riots in Sanford, Florida.

– She referred to the killing of Trayvon Martin as “an unfortunate incident that happened.”

– Asked by George Zimmerman’s attorney to describe Trayvon Martin, she said, “He was a boy of color.”

The “bottom-of-the-barrel” nature of a jury is on full display. This is the less-than-noble flip side of Don West’s infamous knock-knock joke. West intended to applaud the jury for failing to form a preconceived notion of the case, but it more accurately pointed out that the jury was constructed of the least intellectually curious people they could find. That’s not to say all jurors are “dumb” or incapable of getting their s**t together and figuring out a trial in some reasonable way. But jurors that are relatively lazy in the face of current events do not bode well for justice.

Second, how did the prosecution let this woman on the jury knowing all of this? Well, I’d venture to guess, based on the strategic choices the prosecutors made throughout the trial, that they felt that having a woman on the jury was more important than anything else, because sexist stereotyping is rampant in jury selection.

The prosecution engaged in the beatification of Trayvon Martin. Why? Probably because women, and in particular mothers, love innocent babies. Except women are actually capable of subverting a hypothetical maternal instinct to rational thought. It’s one of their superpowers as human beings. Lots of trial lawyers (and many jury consultants — including one famous one I can think of) embrace two-dimensional, pop psychology thinking when constructing juries. It’s like a 1980s stand-up routine. I’m surprised the prosecution didn’t just roll with the Evening at the Improv motif and close with, “See, black guys like Trayvon walk like this, but white guys like Zimmerman walk like this.”

And all this stereotyping bit the prosecution in this one.

You see, Trayvon Martin was not a saint because no one is a saint. Women are entirely capable of figuring this out. And once the prosecution tries to make an angel out of the victim, the defense can take any out-of-context evidence to erode that argument and it not only undermines the claim, but the whole credibility of the prosecution. But the prosecution went with this dumb, paternalistic strategy anyway, and willingly put a woman on the jury whose voir dire provided a roadmap to her eventual not guilty vote in the process.

2. Jury instructions are guidelines rather than gospel.

Lawyers imbue jury instructions with a lot of power. They guide (or should guide) the entire structure of the case, and faulty instructions can trigger appeals. Many more hours of my life than I’d like were spent drafting proposed jury instructions.

And yet, I never got over the sneaking suspicion that jury instructions are a quintessential example of why people hate lawyers. Listening to Judge Debra Nelson deliver a monotone reading of a 27-page long document turning murder and manslaughter into complicated legalese, one wonders if any juror could understand exactly what was going on.

New York no longer affords lawyers immunity from jury duty, and I’ve been on a criminal jury before. My fellow jurors were a pretty sharp bunch of professionals and their initial interpretation of the instructions was eye-opening. It’s fair to say that even the most intelligent lay juror gets, at best, the gist of jury instructions. From this, the instructions meld with other bits of knowledge gleaned from lawyer friends and reruns of Law & Order to create the “jury instructions” juries really employ.

There’s a lot of conservative backpedaling on the news, explaining that Florida’s now infamous Stand Your Ground law was not involved in this case. This is not really true in an indirect sense, as the law informs the decision of someone to take a gun and confront someone in the street aware that if an altercation occurs, they will not go to jail.

Nor was it true in a direct sense, because Juror B37 explained to Anderson Cooper that the jury’s deliberations focused on Zimmerman’s right to “stand his ground.”

COOPER: Because of the two options you had, second degree murder or manslaughter, you felt neither applied?

JUROR: Right. Because of the heat of the moment and the Stand Your Ground. He had a right to defend himself. If he felt threatened that his life was going to be taken away from him or he was going to have bodily harm, he had a right.

The jury was not entirely wrong to fixate on the law. It is explicitly mentioned in the definition of deadly force provided in the jury instructions:

If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.

However, the lack of a duty to retreat is subordinate to a good deal of verbiage about how to define deadly force. Thinking as a lawyer, the instruction, as placed, is intended to say: if you decide deadly force was authorized under the above standard, you don’t have to let “could he have retreated” change your mind. And yet, to hear B37 tell it, the jury took the popular conception of the Stand Your Ground law and ran with it.

Juror B37 even inadvertently explained to Cooper that Zimmerman’s behavior was probably criminal in her eyes:

“I think he just didn’t know when to stop. He was frustrated and things just got out of hand,” she says of Zimmerman.

If the jury thought the events that led to Trayvon’s death were caused by Zimmerman’s intentional or reckless behavior, that would fulfill the instruction on manslaughter. Obviously the defenses could still apply, but that’s not really the point. She’s saying George Zimmerman, with some degree of malice, created his situation and let it “get out of hand,” which is hardly a disciplined reading of the jury instructions as presented. And you can’t entirely blame her because jury instructions are a big, confusing mess for jurors.

Especially jurors who admittedly don’t like to read.

3. Coda.

In case this discussion leaves you salivating for Juror B37’s book, keep waiting. After locking up her deal, going on CNN, and generally becoming the media darling she claims to despise, Juror B37 is now back to square one.

A Twitter campaign started by @MoreAndAgain convinced everyone involved to back away from the controversial deal. Juror B37 subsequently tried to save face by claiming that she decided not to pursue the book. This was then exposed as a complete lie. At present, Juror B37 is standing her ground on the issue.

So you’ll all just have to wait until George Zimmerman pens his masterpiece, “The Corn Syrup Menace: Why I Had to Kill a Guy Pushing Skittles on America’s Youth.”

George Zimmerman Juror B37 Hates Media, Called Trayvon ‘A Boy of Color’ [Gawker]
Zimmerman Juror Says Panel Considered Stand Your Ground In Deliberations: ‘He Had A Right To Defend Himself’ [ThinkProgress]
Juror B37 Says She’d Be Fine With Zimmerman in Her Neighborhood Watch [Jezebel]
Here’s The Story Of The Twitter Hero Who Single-Handedly Killed Zimmerman Juror B-37′s Book Deal [Uproxx]
BREAKING – Juror B37 Says She Changed Her Mind About Writing A Book AFTER SHE IS DROPPED By Agent [Groupthink Jezebel]

Earlier: Will George Zimmerman Join O.J. Simpson In The Hunt For Real Killers?
It Was Just Another Criminal Case: Why The Outrage Over George Zimmerman’s Acquittal?

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