White Juries and Black Victims


(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."

Like The Root on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

 Experts Weigh In

For those who doubt the significance of a jury's racial composition, witness the rising demand for trial consulting services.


A growing range of self-identified experts — some of them experienced trial lawyers and prosecutors, others psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists and former jurors in high-profile cases — are offering up their services to help lawyers identify jurors most likely to convict or acquit defendants facing a range of very serious charges.

That work sits at the center of a big and booming business. Trial consultants generated about $153 million in fees last year, according to an analysis generated by IBISWorld, a Los Angeles-based industry research firm. That's up 15 percent from $132.5 million in 2000.


Indeed, jury consultants know what some Americans do not like to admit: Bias exists and influences even our most important decisions, our understanding of risk, danger, suspicion and even what is legal and reasonable.  

In 2010, the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based nonprofit legal organization that assists poor, incarcerated and condemned individuals in the South, issued a report detailing just how often all-white juries hear some of the country's most serious and sensational cases, how this happens and what effect this long-running phenomenon has on justice.


The study examined jury-selection procedures in eight states, including Florida. There, the Initiative found counties where prosecutors managed to exclude nearly 80 percent of African Americans qualified to serve on a jury, primarily relying on a series of tests that, on their face, seem race-neutral but are almost certainly designed to create all-white or at least mostly white juries. In some places, prosecutors even received special training on just how to accomplish this sleight of hand. In doing so, blacks were excluded from juries for being too old at age 48 or too young at age 28, single, married, separated, because they wore glasses, "appeared to have low intelligence," attended or had relatives who attended historically black colleges, because of the way they walked, chewed their gum or because they lived in a mostly black community.

In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court firmly established a ban on any efforts lawyers may make to exclude minorities from juries, requiring lawyers to provide reasons for removing black citizens during the jury-selection process. But, all-white juries remain a common occurrence, said Brian Stevenson, the Equal Justice Initiative's executive director.


As recently as the 1990s, every single man sentenced to death in Alabama was convicted by an all-white jury, Stevenson said.

A Continual Problem

And while some progress has been made, there have also been serious setbacks.  

In June, North Carolina's Republican-controlled legislature repealed a law that gave individuals on death row the right to raise an appeal based on the possibility that racial bias, including all-white juries, played a role in their conviction and the sentence handed down. In the four years that the law, known as the Racial Justice Act, remained on the books in North Carolina, four black men saw their death sentences commuted.  


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.

Like The Root on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.