by Andrew Guthrie Ferguson, author of Why Jury Duty Matters: A Citizen's Guide to Constitutional Action (NYU Press 2013) and an assistant professor of law at the David A. Clarke School of Law at the University of the District of Columbia.
The debate over the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman jury verdict continues to reverberate as is typical of most high profile, racially divisive cases in this country. Even though the criminal case is over, the issues of race, class, gender, and justice remain loudly contested in a way that will not likely quiet soon.
Today, the six citizens who made the difficult decision in the Zimmerman case are no doubt reeling from the discordant critique of their verdict. These were ordinary citizens plucked at random and then selected to sit at the fault-lines of race relations in 21st Century America. As other citizens receive their jury summons today and in the future, it is worth considering the situation of the Zimmerman jurors.
First, much has been made about the jurors’ gender. The early headlines of most major news outlets proclaimed “an all women jury.” Five white and one Hispanic woman were thus immediately examined for how gender might affect the jury. Forgotten were the historic and decades-long suffrage struggles to get any women (let alone all women) to sit on a jury. Instead, modern gender stereotypes and speculations were tossed about as to how gender might affect the verdict. Well, we now know the verdict, but can anyone say gender had any impact? Time may tell as the anonymous jurors reveal more about their deliberations, but likely gender did not play any direct role. Certainly, it was not because the jury was all women that the verdict resulted as it did. Commentators from both genders have weighed in on how the verdict was defensible under the existing Florida law.
Second, forgotten in the media tumult is the sacrifice made by the jurors who were sequestered during trial. Sequestering juries is no longer the norm in most places, and with the exception of big media cases, largely avoided. But, for the weeks of jury service, those six citizens were completely serving their community. This is no small sacrifice. To be completely at the whim of the court system schedule, away from work, family, and life responsibilities in order to judge a stranger’s problem is a tremendous service. Further, to deliberate for 16 hours is no small feat. When is the last time you held a 16 hour meeting to discuss and decide on a problem? This type of commitment should be validated not vilified, as has unfortunately been the case from some quarters.