White Juries and Black Victims

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

All-white juries have also been shown to deliberate for shorter periods of time because they avoid often messy, emotional and stressful discussions about justice. And nearly all-white juries typically bring intense pressure to bear when a single black, Asian or Latino person is a part of the jury panel, Stevenson said.

“Juries that are homogeneous make a lot of wrong decisions because they are typically looking to agree with one another,” Stevenson said. “They assume a diversity of perspectives, extended debate and evaluation will not be a part of reaching consensus. And the smaller the jury, the more critical diversity really becomes.”

The Current Trial

In Sanford, Fla., the panel that will decide Zimmerman’s fate only consists of six jurors, a quirk of Florida law.

In the Zimmerman trial, all of that is coupled with something that could go even further to stand in the way of a guilty verdict, said Stevenson.

“There are very substantial differences in the way that people think about the burden of race,” Stevenson said. “Most people of color are very familiar with this experience of being suspected, profiled, that appears to be at the center of this case. For many white Americans, that is a completely abstract, if not foreign, concept.”  

Just how Zimmerman wound up facing a nearly all-white jury is not clear.

Seminole County, Fla., where Zimmerman is on trial, is home to about 431,000 people. There, about 65 percent of the population is white, 12 percent black and 18 percent Latino, said Maryanne Morse, the Seminole County circuit court clerk. In Florida, state law requires court employees to pull prospective jurors’ names from the state’s driver’s license database. In the Zimmerman case, the judge requested 500 names. Then, 211 people responded to jury summons and completed questionnaires compiled by lawyers on both sides of the case, Morse said.

But, just after jury selection ended, prosecutors sought and won a court order preventing the questionnaires and even the names of jurors from becoming public during and after the trial.

On Friday, as lawyers on both sides of the Zimmerman trial made their closing arguments, prosecutor John Guy made what can only be described as a final effort to encourage the all-white jury to empathize with Trayvon, a black teenager, or perhaps managed a ninja-like move acknowledging that race may be an unspoken part of the jury’s deliberations.

“This case is not about race. It’s about right and wrong; it’s that simple,” said Guy. “All things being equal and the roles were reversed, and it was 28-year-old George Zimmerman walking home in the rain with a hoodie on to protect himself from that rain, and a 17-year-old driving around who called the police who had hate in their heart, hate in their mouth, and it was Trayvon Martin who had killed George Zimmerman. What would your verdict be?”

The Zimmerman case does include at least one not so-well-researched wild card that makes the nearly all-white jury’s verdict difficult to predict with certainty, Sommers said.

Five of the six women on the jury are also mothers.

Editor’s note: This article has been revised to reflect the fact that five of the six jurors are mothers, not all of them.

Janell Ross is a reporter in New York working on a book about race, economic inequality and the recession, due out next year.

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