White Juries and Black Victims

Juries with little diversity tend to acquit or offer lighter sentences when the victim is black.

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Trayvon Martin's family (Pool/Getty Images); Don West and George Zimmerman (Pool/Getty Images)

(The Root) -- Gavel-to-gavel news coverage with a promise that viewers "won't miss a moment."

A televised re-enactment of deadly events.

A virtual army of lawyers, writers and jury consultants, analyzing every comment, every witness and nearly every moment of the George Zimmerman trial.

The courtroom scene in Sanford, Fla., where Zimmerman faces second-degree-murder and manslaughter charges, could lead reasonable people to conclude that the jury working to decide his fate holds the answer to a genuine criminal-justice cliffhanger.

But social psychologists, civil rights activists and former prosecutors who have spent considerable time in America's courtrooms studying juries and their decisions say that the likely outcome in the Zimmerman case is, unfortunately, already clear.

Given the make-up of the jury, a conviction is unlikely.

The simple reason: The jury, first described by some news outlets as all-white but later redefined as a panel of five white women and one Latina, is not diverse. And the victim, as all of America knows, was not only black, but may be dead precisely because of it.

It turns out there is plenty already known about the way that white and nearly all-white juries tend to respond to cases involving a black victim and a nonblack defendant. They tend to acquit or offer lighter sentences, deliberate for shorter periods of time, cling to a goal of reaching consensus and have a more difficult time empathizing with black victims. All-white juries have also been a common denominator in cases where defendants have later been set free due to a wrongful conviction, according to years of social science research.

"In this country, I think the average American believes that verdicts are decided based on the facts, the evidence, the law alone," said Samuel R. Sommers, a Tufts University social psychologist who studies race and the way that all-white juries respond to cases involving black victims.

"Individual juries sometimes manage that feat," Sommers said. "But in the aggregate, study after study has shown that we all tend to have an easier time empathizing with people with whom we have an immediate connection, the folks that we can look at and imagine ourselves in their shoes. That's just not something that the average white juror does well when there's a black victim and a nonblack defendant."

George Zimmerman Trial: 11 Racial Events

Despite warnings from the judge not to raise the issue, race was still at the center of the trial.

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