Civil Discourse Now

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Zimmerman-Matrin trial: what we did not see or, rather, the perspective from which it was impossible for us to see.

   Last week, shortly before closing arguments began in State v. George Zimmerman, someone blogged about the view of the trial from the six seats that counted most at the end: the seats in the jury box. If one sets emotions aside, the reality of the jury becomes paramount.

   People can jest about a jury being made up of people not competent enough to get out of jury duty. However, every jury in front of which I have tried a case, once the oath is administered, has taken that oath and the duty it entails quite seriously. The jury's role is important, of course, but one must look at the factors to understand not only "why," but the nuances of that "why."

   First and most obvious, those jurors made the decision. A great many arguments were directed to the judge in regard to legal matters. All the arguments as to facts were directed to the jury. In Indiana, and in most if not all jurisdictions, jurors are instructed, whenever there is a recess or court adjourns for the day, not to discuss the case with one another. This jury, for obvious reasons, was sequestered. So their world, on the one hand, was of a common daily experience and schedule focused on the One Big Thing about which they could not talk.

   While in the courtroom, people---perhaps jury consultants, certainly members of the press and public, and definitely attorneys both for the State of Florida and the defense---watched the individual jurors for reactions to specific testimony, exhibits, whatever. At the same time, the jurors watched. Sure, they watched the individual witnesses. I read transcripts for appeals. After about 25 years, I can detect things that happen in court that come through the plain, black-and-white of the typed page. There obviously are more things that do not come through. The jurors hear certainty, or lack of certainty, in the voices of witnesses. The jurors might each differently interpret the body language of a single witness.

   The jurors also get to observe the reactions of the defendant to everything brought to the witness stand.

   At the end of the testimony and arguments, the jurors are instructed in the law. Jury instructions are extremely important. They constitute the basis for reversal of convictions. They also are taken quite seriously by jurors. A judge can impress upon jurors the importance of the instructions. Sure, one can argue the concept of "jury nullification," in which the jury decides the case as it wishes. In Indiana, the deliberations of a jury are not subject to examination except for specific reasons, such as intoxication or exposure to outside influences. Otherwise, if a juror were to say, in a drug case as an example, "I believe drugs should be legal so my vote is 'not guilty' and I don't care what anyone else says," there's not a lot that can be done. Most juries, however, do not entertain---probably are not aware of the concept of---jury nullification. I have not read that jury nullification came into play here.

   Imagine, however, having sat through all the testimony and arguments, not being able to talk with one another about the main thing you each have observed, your common experience of however-many weeks, and you just have been ordered back to the jury room to deliberate.

   The jurors' perspectives were the most important in the case. The day networks (if they still exist) place cameras and microphones in the jury box, will be a day things have become really perverse. Until then, this is a system we have had for the entire existence of our Republic. Jury duty provides a person with the chance to cast the most important and effective---one out of six or 12, not 100 million---vote one may cast in a setting. This is our system.   

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