So far, 2013 has been a year of high-profile courtroom dramas, and it’s not just defendants in the spotlight, but jurors. Jury selection in the murder trial of Jodi Arias was so ill-fated that jurors seemed to exit the trial like it was some bizarre game of musical chairs. The puzzling decision to try George Zimmerman in front of a an all-female, anonymous jury of only six people yielded an acquittal that outraged many in a case that had already sparked nationwide controversy about racism and how far an individual can go under the guise of self-defense. The Colorado legal system is preparing to choose jurors for the murder trial of James Holmes, scheduled to begin in February 2014, by sending out an unprecedented amount of jury summons – 5,000, according to CBS News – just to find a collection of 12 people who may be considered “impartial.” From boyfriend killings to neighborhood watches gone horribly wrong to mass shootings, criminal cases like these illustrate what personal injury attorneys already know: that in America, we have a love-hate relationship with our supposed right to a jury of one’s peers.
Who wants to be a juror? The short answer is, no one – and that may be part of the ongoing problem. In 2007, less than half of all jurors summoned actually reported for duty, according to NBC News. Photo Credit: Flickr (Creative Commons license).
The Trouble with Juries of Our Peers
The Constitutionally-guaranteed right to a jury of one’s peers is a popular misconception. The phrase “a jury of one’s peers” appears nowhere in the actual text of the United States Constitution, explained USConstitution.net. The Constitution only guarantees the right to trial by an “impartial” jury in criminal cases, and even that assurance is in the Sixth Amendment, while the Seventh Amendment allows for jury trials in civil claims. Modern interpretations of the phrase impartial jury set the tone for our assumption of a jury of one’s peers, which we understand to include jurors of both genders and all races and ethnicities in a combination that reflects the demographic makeup of the general population.
Jury selection is a topic of contention in the legal system, especially in high-profile trials. This was certainly the case in the Jodi Arias trial, in which the defendant stood accused of brutally murdering her ex-boyfriend, Travis Alexander, in Mesa, Arizona, in 2008 by stabbing him nearly 30 times, slitting his throat, and shooting him. Arias originally denied involvement in the murder, but later admitted that she did it yet argued that she acted in self-defense. During jury selection, the defense criticized prosecutors for “systematically excluding” potential jurors based on race and gender, according to television network HLN. Prosecutors maintained that they dismissed individuals for permissible reasons, such as views that could prevent jurors from being impartial during the proceedings. The final selection of 18 individuals – 12 active jurors and six alternates – included 11 men and seven women, with only one Hispanic individual and the rest of group members identifying themselves as white. The judge “ruled the prosecution showed no bias in their decision to dismiss the potential jurors,” HLN reported.
Opening arguments began in January 2013, and the trial lasted for months, including 18 days of testimony by Arias herself. Despite the lengths prosecutors and defense attorneys went to in the attempt to select in impartial jury, one juror betrayed a bias about the case when speaking to fellow jurors and was dismissed for misconduct in April. Health reasons caused another juror to depart. Finally, a third juror was dismissed after an arrest for driving under the influence. On May 8, the jury concluded 15 hours of deliberations, finding Arias guilty of first-degree murder. The prosecutors currently are seeking the death penalty, but the endeavor has so far only yielded a hung jury and a mistrial for the sentencing portion of the trial.
“12 Angry Men?” Most Americans assume juries consist of 12 people, but a 1970 Supreme Court ruling called a jury of six “large enough to promote group deliberation, free from outside intimidation, and to provide a fair possibility for obtaining a cross-section of the community” in non-capital criminal trials, according to CBS News. Photo Credit: Steve Bott, Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons license).
If jury selection was problematic in the case of Arias, where the eventual guilty verdict appeased much of the nation, it became even more of an issue in the trial of George Zimmerman, accused of murdering 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. In a case overshadowed by vigilantism and race, the decision to select only six jurors, all women and nearly all described as white, is unusual, if not perplexing. The judge decided to sequester the six jurors, meaning that they were kept isolated during the entirety of the trial. The Sheriff’s Office paid $33,000 to sequester the jurors for the duration of the trial, NBC News wrote.
Does keeping jurors anonymous and sequestered help them avoid bias, or does this protection reduce their personal responsibility to consider cases carefully? Photo Credit: Flickr (Creative Commons license).
Ultimately, the members of the jury delivered a not-guilty verdict that shocked and outraged people across the nation, apparently having decided that the prosecution did not convince them beyond a reasonable doubt that George Zimmerman was guilty of second-degree murder or manslaughter in the death of Trayvon Martin. Between the verdict and statements made by one of the anonymous jurors, known as B37, the acquittal of Zimmerman by the legal system has led to social and media backlash toward the jury. “The jurors who found Zimmerman not guilty of a crime in the shooting that left Florida teenager Trayvon Martin dead have since had such a strong emotional reaction to the case that the court is making counseling available to them,” NBC News reported. It’s worth wondering if that strong emotional reaction is to the tragedy of the case itself, the national reaction to the verdict, or both.
Is Determining “Reasonable Doubt” an Unreasonable Task?
In a criminal case, like that of Arias or Zimmerman, the prosecution has the burden of proof to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the person on trial did commit the crime of which they are accused – not any other crime, but that specific crime. Whether Arias lied to detectives or whether Zimmerman held racist views in his private life, the jurors in each trial were only supposed to evaluate the guilt of the accused in relation to the charges brought against them – in these cases, murder. A not guilty verdict does not mean, necessarily, that the defendant is innocent – it means that the evidence against them is insufficient to prove guilt in the mind of the jurors. Regardless of actual innocence, the defendant is assumed innocent until proven guilty.
Reasonable doubt is a tricky concept. Jurors can have some doubt, but not too much doubt. There’s nothing clear-cut when asking 12 (or fewer) individuals to compare the degree of something as intangible as doubt to their subjective opinions of what a “reasonable person” would think about the case. To make matters worse, juries are given a spiel about using reasonable doubt to determine guilt, but may not even know what the phrase means. “While it is well-settled law that juries must always be instructed to apply this standard when determining the guilt or innocence of a criminal defendant, there is still much disagreement on whether juries should also be given an instruction defining the term ‘reasonable doubt,’” wrote lawyers in a 1990 article in the Columbia Law Review. While state laws vary on the subject, neither federal laws nor the Constitution requires judges to define reasonable doubt for a jury.
Was it the jury’s duty to find Arias guilty? To find Zimmerman guilty? Or simply to weigh only the evidence place before them by the prosecution and the defense, discounting the numerous rumors and swirling controversies surrounding the cases?
The Legacy of High-Profile Trials
Already, verdicts in high-profile cases like Zimmerman’s are influencing the future of our legal system – and it’s too soon to know whether that influence is positive or negative. Just days after the Zimmerman verdict, legal officials in Milwaukee found, unsurprisingly, that prospective jurors for a case with similar characteristics “might have a hard time ignoring parallels to the Zimmerman case, and the reaction to the Florida jury’s decision,” the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journey Sentinel reported. It’s easy to see both sides of the issue. Those who felt that the Zimmerman trial highlighted injustice within the legal system understandably want to make sure that a similar crime doesn’t go unpunished – but those within the legal system know that it’s hard for someone angry at the entire system to truly be an “impartial” juror.
“You jurors are only to act as jurors in this case,” the judge reportedly told the jurors selected for the murder trial of 76-year-old John Spooner, who admitted to shooting his 13-year-old neighbor, Darius Simmons, in May 2012 because Spooner believed the boy had stolen guns from his home. This case reflects the same issues of race and vigilantism as the Zimmerman trial, but with no claims regarding self-defense. Opening statements began on July 16, and the jury had found the defendant guilty of first-degree murder by July 17. During the next phase of the trial, jurors face the task of determining whether or not mental illness contributed to Spooner’s actions.
The impact of the Trayvon Martin shooting and the George Zimmerman trial may be even greater throughout the legal system. Those upset by the outcome of the Zimmerman trial “took to Twitter and other public platforms to proclaim that, from now on, they’ll take their own jury summons more seriously, and also encouraged others to do so,” reported USA Today. “Jury and legal experts say the high-profile Zimmerman case may spur some who would have avoided jury duty to step up.” In theory, that means a more engaged population of jurors – and as a result, a stronger legal system.
The Media Circus Is a Dangerous Show
Ideally, jurors would go into any trial knowing nothing of the case and base their decision regarding guilt solely on the evidence presented during the trial. How, exactly, could that occur in such high-profile cases as the Arias, Zimmerman, or upcoming Holmes trial, when virtually everyone in the nation has heard the names or the stories, often sensationalized as only American media can be?
You know it’s bad when even mainstream news source CNN referred to the Arias trial as a “media circus.” Arias and Zimmerman in 2013, alleged child killer Casey Anthony in 2012 – these cases became a sort of voyeuristic national obsession, where we as a society couldn’t look away from the particularly gruesome, scandalous train wreck of the trial – in no small part because it headlined the news every day. “For its fans, the Arias trial has become a live daytime soap opera,” wrote The Times Herald. The Zimmerman trial seemed to be constantly on the nation’s mind during the entire ordeal. Already, the James Holmes case caused a stir when the prosecutor announced intentions to seek capital punishment, stating “justice is death.”
I’m not arguing in favor of any of these individuals – both Arias and Zimmerman admitted to their respective killings but claimed self-defense, while Holmes’s lawyers agree that he performed the mass shooting but are seeking a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity. However, as a citizen and a lawyer, I find this entanglement of defendants, jurors, and the media troubling. I already see it in my own discipline, where inflated, inaccurate media “coverage” of the rare frivolous lawsuit has made civil juries cynical, hesitant to believe that another human being whose life has been ruined by an accident isn’t “faking it” or looking to win some twisted sort of lottery. When it comes to criminal cases like these notorious trials, the level of national vitriol against the accused raises the stakes even more, from suspicion to active hostility. It turns out that while we love and praise the idea of a trial by jury, we’re not so enamored with the justice system when a jury disagrees with popular opinion. If we continue to put our accused on trial by media, what happens to our justice system? Will defendants stand a chance of getting a “fair” trial by an “impartial” jury? And when we’re unhappy with the outcome – as much of the nation is with the Zimmerman case – will we then put our jurors on trial by media as well?