A short while ago, the jury in the trial of George Zimmerman was handed the case. Zimmerman's fate is now entirely in the hands of the six women selected to consider the evidence. When the verdict is returned, whatever it happens to be, there's one thing that's important to remember: Those women know more than you.
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Here's what I mean by that. No matter how much of the trial you watched on CNN, those jurors almost certainly saw more of the evidence than you did. They held documents in their hands. They saw what the witnesses—and Zimmerman—were doing while not on camera. They were excluded from hearing evidence that the judge deemed inappropriate or inadmissible. They have been instructed on the specific components of the law. And, most important, they are the only ones who know what arguments are being used to persuade each other to reach a unanimous decision.
Each of these things is an important part of the process of a criminal trial; I'll break out why below. But again: While we can watch the trial through the keyhole provided by CNN, we should never convince ourselves that we know better than the people in that room.
This is admittedly personal. For much of the year 2009, I sat as a juror on a well-publicized trial in New York City. Thousands of people each year sit on juries, of course, but few sit on ones that last a long time and are the subject of intense scrutiny. And in few—including the one in my experience—are the repercussions as high as in the case presented to these six women.
Jurors must evaluate the evidence. While both sides present opening and closing arguments, the central component of a criminal trial is the evidence. And in our system, that evidence is introduced through witnesses. If the prosecution has computer analysis that shows important information, it must call a computer analyst to the stand to explain how it was developed. Every physical thing is linked to a human representative.
What this means is that the person and the evidence are inextricably linked. Jurors are asked to evaluate the witness as placeholders for the evidence. Not only in the case of eyewitness testimony—is the witness squirming in his seat? Does he seem believable?—but in expert testimony, too. Credentials are considered, but so is the presentation. Did that doctor seem uncertain in answering his question? Did she qualify her analysis? When the camera in the courtroom shows the lawyer asking the question and not the witness answering it, you're missing part of the evidence.
Physical evidence also offer details not conveyed over the television. Tiny details—textures, discolorations, notes—can all be elements that play into the decision-making process jurors use. Those details may not be conveyed, even in high-definition.
Then, of course, there is the response of the man on trial. What is George Zimmerman doing while the evidence is being presented? How is he reacting? Zimmerman is frequently shown during CNN's boradcast, but not always. His demeanor is something the jurors must consider.
This works both ways, by the way. The attorneys for either side are also watching the jurors, evaluating their reactions as the case is made. In our case, consultants sat in the audience, rarely taking their eyes off of us and taking notes in a notepad.
Jurors only see evidence that's admissible. Criminal trials are not about guilt. They are about whether or not someone broke a law. This is a very important distinction.
Imagine that laws didn't exist. If you killed someone, you are guilty of committing that act. But you are not guilty of murder, because murder requires a violation of the law. Or imagine that a law is passed so that murder requires the use of a gun. If you stab someone to death and are put on trial for murder, you should not be found guilty.
During a criminal trial, there are only three participants. There are the prosecution and defense, presenting evidence through witnesses and rebutting the evidence of their opponents. And then there is the jury, which is asked to evaluate it. The judge is a referee, there to evaluate the process, not the case. He or she evaluates the law. The judge knows the specific details of the statutes under consideration and makes determinations about which evidence is allowable in that context.
Courtroom observers—and non-sequestered people following press coverage—know things that a judge might consider unduly prejudicial if presented to a juror. As a person watching from the outside, you are more than welcome to judge the defendant based on that evidence. But if the judge excludes it from consideration by the jury, there's a reason, based in the law.
The jury only worries about what the law says. This is an important point, worth repeating. If that law states that murder requires a gun, the jury cannot find a serial strangler guilty of murder. When the jury retires for its deliberations, the instructions are clear: does the evidence presented in court surpass any reasonable doubt that the particular laws at issue—in the Zimmerman case, manslaughter or murder—were violated? The jury is not judging if Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin. It is not evaluating if he is a thief or if he is cheating on his wife. It is there to read Florida's statutes and see if the evidence builds high enough that they are all convinced that Zimmerman should be punished.
Deliberations are much, much harder than they seem. The most surprising aspect of my jury service came in the sixth month, in the first hour that we all returned to the jury room and were asked to deliberate. (This was also the first moment that any of us ever spoke about the presented evidence with one another.) One component of the case seemed, to me, open-and-shut. I assumed that, of the twenty or so charges, it could be dealt with quickly. I was wrong. Disagreement was substantial and significant. Arguments were presented and the law assessed. Eventually, I changed my mind.
This is the process. As any Twelve Angry Men fan knows, it's people—regular people in an extraordinary circumstance—asked to work out any substantial differences of opinion. Imagine finding five random people on the street and coming to unified agreement on any issue. That's what these six women must do: reach a unanimous verdict on the matters of law before them. It's cajoling and argument and empathy and mind-reading and frustration for hours and hours. It was, if I'm honest, also fascinating and deeply enjoyable.
That you, on your own, decided George Zimmerman's guilt or innocence based on your sense of whether or not he killed Trayvon Martin is fine. It is your opinion. But when those six women, exhausted and perhaps frustrated, emerge from their sequestration to announce their verdict, remember that your disagreement is worth little to nothing. You didn't see the case they did. And the case they saw was the only one that matters.