U.S. News

02.26.14

The Only Non-White Juror in the George Zimmerman Trial

The only non-white jury member in George Zimmerman’s trial for the murder of Trayvon Martin speaks to Lisa Bloom about the experience. An excerpt from Bloom’s just published Suspicion Nation.

The Sixth Juror

Maddy had had it. The trial wasn’t over, but she was out of there. Rules or no rules, she was leaving. “If they had to put me in jail for going home, then put me in jail.” Three weeks of sequestration with five white women who didn’t understand the first thing about her, who demeaned and mocked and trivialized her, was more than enough. As the only minority juror in the nation’s most watched and most racially charged case in decades, she was done.

As a thirty-six-year-old olive-skinned Puerto Rican woman, Maddy had been doubly lonely since the first week of trial. (Most juries in America have twelve members; Florida has six-person juries in all but death penalty cases, and in this case all six were female.) Judge Debra Nelson had ordered the six women sequestered, requiring them to leave their families for the duration of the trial, booking them in a local hotel under the careful watch of the sheriff’s deputies, with occasional phone calls and weekly visits with family members. But Maddy had isolated herself even further, mostly staying in her room, away from the other jurors, securing herself from their words and cruel laughter and judgments about her.

“I felt naive and dumb from the beginning,” Maddy said. And her gnawing unease mounted each day the trial went on.

She had no idea how bewildering and hurtful it would all be, nor how huge this trial was for Sanford, Florida, and the nation, which became captivated by the explosive case. On February 26, 2012, the night that Trayvon Martin was shot, Maddy wasn’t even living in Florida, but in faraway Chicago, with her husband and seven children. Who had time to watch the news about a crime in a distant state? Between work and raising her family, Maddy was busy. Besides, the news was depressing. She got the weather on her phone, and that was all she felt she needed to know.

Just four months after Maddy and her family moved to central Florida in early 2013, Maddy’s jury summons appeared. She couldn’t believe it. And she’d just had a new baby girl. She could have easily evaded jury duty by saying she was breastfeeding, she learned, but she refused to lie, because lying is wrong.

As a nursing home caregiver, Maddy had no experience with the American court system, which seemed alien to her, conducted in a harsh foreign tongue. While being questioned at length by meticulous defense attorney Don West during jury selection, she felt confused and intimidated—

Was she on trial? What had she done wrong? Why did he keep asking her what TV shows she watched, what newspapers she read?

Was he accusing her of lying? Of being stupid? “They made me feel so guilty of something I didn’t even do,” she said. Only bad people had to go to court, she believed—just being in the courtroom made her feel like she must have done something wrong. “I don’t know who George Zimmerman is, I really don’t!” She kept telling them, but they kept asking anyway, the same question from different angles, because they wanted to be sure to seat jurors like Maddy who had not been tainted by pretrial publicity. It was exhausting her. The unnerving way Don West looked directly at her, as if he could read her mind—she’d never experienced anything like it and hoped never to feel so cross-examined again. “He scared the hell out of me. I cried when I came out [of jury selection],” she said.

“There he is!” other jurors whispered to her when they first saw stone-faced George Zimmerman, the accused murderer, across the small courtroom. They already knew more than she did. Who? Maddy thought, knowing that she was already falling behind. Business suits were so alien to her that she called them tuxedos. “I believed anybody who’s got a tuxedo on is a lawyer,” she said. So she concluded that Zimmerman, in his suit, was a lawyer too.

Assistant state attorney John Guy began the proceedings with, “Fucking punks! These assholes, they always get away.” Rattled by the obscene language, Maddy did not hear the explanation, that these were Zimmerman’s words on his recorded police call, which he made upon seeing Trayvon Martin for the first time, words that would become important later, so the prosecutor was using them now for dramatic effect.

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Suspicion Nation: The Inside Story of the Trayvon Martin Injustice and Why We Continue to Repeat It By Lisa Bloom 320 pages. Counterpoint. $25. ()

All she knew was that the solemnity of the courtroom was shattered as the first attorney to speak at the trial was unnervingly profane. During his defense opening statement, Don West awkwardly tried to break the tension in the courtroom with a knock-knock joke:

Knock knock!
Who’s there?
George Zimmerman.
George Zimmerman who?
All right, good, you’re on the jury.

Maddy didn’t understand the joke: “I just didn’t get it.” Who was George Zimmerman? Why did everyone in the courtroom except her seem to know all about him? Was he one of the lawyers, or the one accused of the shooting? But he’d admitted to the shooting, right? So why was a trial happening?

“I felt naive and dumb from the beginning,” Maddy said. And her gnawing unease mounted each day the trial went on.

*                  *                  *

No other case in recent memory grabbed and held the American public’s attention like the Zimmerman murder trial. CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC covered the proceedings extensively, throughout the court day, with soaring ratings, blowing out all other news coverage in order to broadcast opening statements, the testimony of key witnesses, and then, as viewers couldn’t get enough, all witnesses. CNN’s sister network, HLN, broadcast every moment of the trial, gavel-to-gavel, beginning to end. Many cable evening news shows covered the trial and only the trial, night after night, poring over every lame joke, analyzing juror body language, or replaying each smackdown of counsel by the judge.

Prime-time specials were devoted to analyzing the trial. Network television—NBC, CBS, ABC—covered the story daily on morning shows and nightly on national news programs. Print media, highbrow and low, from the New York Times to TMZ.com, published thousands of stories about the proceedings, from pretrial wrangling over screams on a 911 call through the final Saturday late-night not-guilty verdict. The public’s demand for stories about the trial was insatiable and continued well after its unsatisfying conclusion. Outside the United States, the world watched any of the three million YouTube videos that were posted about Zimmerman, mainly chunks of the trial.

For once, this intensive coverage was worthy. The public, especially African-American journalists and activists, had clamored for the media to pay attention to the story since shortly after February 26, 2012, when it became known that Trayvon Martin, a seventeen-year-old boy walking to a friend’s home carrying only his cell phone, Skittles, and an Arizona watermelon drink, had been gunned down by a neighborhood-watch coordinator named George Zimmerman. Then Zimmerman’s recorded call to the police was released, and we learned that he had looked out the window of his SUV and described Trayvon, a stranger to him, as “a real suspicious guy” who was “up to no good,” adding, “these assholes, they always get away” and “fucking punks.” (I refer to adults by their last names and minors by their first names throughout this book.) To many, Zimmerman appeared to have racially profiled Trayvon and shot and killed him based on the deepest, ugliest stereotypes still embedded in the American psyche: that blacks are criminals, dangerous—“they” get away with their crimes—“they” must be watched, followed—those assholes. Most of black America grasped immediately that a boy was dead from those prejudices.

Despite the strides America has made in the civil rights movement, eradicating Jim Crow laws, teaching tolerance, and electing an African- American president, racial inequality endures, as the shooting vividly illustrated. Any false belief that we lived in a post-racial America was shattered, as mothers of black boys spoke out about the excruciating warnings they privately gave their sons: don’t run, especially from police; don’t carry anything in your hands; don’t talk back to authority figures. Yet Zimmerman was not police, and Trayvon was not running or speaking to him (at least not initially), nor was he holding anything in his hands. Many African-American commentators spoke about the personal pain they felt in hearing Trayvon lumped in with “these assholes” and “fucking punks”—that recorded language confirming their fears that they were constantly misjudged, stereotyped, suspicious merely for walking while black.

Some of white America was hostile to the idea that this case was significant. In a nation, sadly, with so many shootings, why did this one catch fire? Because a “bottom-up” grassroots movement insisted on it. The black community had heard it all before, too many agonizing times, the one about the unarmed dark-skinned man gunned down because he touched his waistband, or reached for a doorbell, or the cell phone in his hand had magically transformed into a gun in the eyes of his shooter.

The community remembered Kimani Gray, Kendrec McDade, Timothy Russell, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, and dozens of other names of young black men, weaponless, feared, gunned down, their shooters usually freed or facing only minimal sentences. Bruce Springsteen said, “Trayvon Martin is Amadou Diallo,” invoking the unarmed African immigrant gunned down by New York City police in 1999, holding only his wallet, and sang, “you can get killed just for living in your American skin.” Oprah

Winfrey and others compared Trayvon to civil rights icon Emmett Till, the fourteen-year-old black boy, also returning from a store with candy, who was shot in the head in 1955 in another small Southern town by a stranger with easy access to a gun, who, like Zimmerman, raised substantial funds for his legal defense fund and was quickly acquitted.

State and local officials spoke out, even at the highest levels. In no other state criminal case has President Barack Obama weighed in— twice—as he did here. First, in March 2012, carefully handling his comments about the matter, as it was then an open criminal case, he said only: “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon Martin.” No sympathetic words were offered to Zimmerman. Identifying with Trayvon, our first African-American president, who generally avoided talk of race, understood that racial profiling was at the heart of the case.

After the acquittal in July 2013, as demonstrations erupted in dozens of cities nationwide, President Obama shocked the Washington press corps by making unannounced, seemingly off-the-cuff comments on the case. Speaking in the most personal terms we’d heard from him on any subject since he took office, President Obama upgraded his connection to the story, mirroring the popular “I Am Trayvon” placards at demonstrations: “When Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said this could’ve been my son. Another way of saying that is, Trayvon Martin could have been me, thirty-five years ago.”

He continued: “There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping at a department store, and that includes me.” President Obama spoke about hearing locks click on car doors while crossing the street, something he said he personally experienced before he was senator, and of women nervously clutching their purses while in elevators with African-American men like him.         

Seeming to attempt to explain the black outrage about the acquittal, President Obama said: “I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. It’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear.”

Understand our history, President Obama seemed to say. Understand that we are still living it. Grasp our pain that racial profiling happens, and it can end in death—death of our children.

For many, the Florida verdict was a beginning, not an end. A civil rights movement was reignited, and a bright media spotlight shined on racial profiling not only in Florida, but also in New York City and nationwide. Stand Your Ground laws, which expanded traditional self-defense doctrine to allow those who felt threatened in virtually any location to use deadly force even if they could have escaped without violence, were decried, even though the law should have been inapplicable in the Zimmerman trial. Calls came for stricter gun laws, including prohibiting neighborhood-watch volunteers from carrying firearms. Yet deep divisions about race, guns, and Stand Your Ground still fester since they were put into motion when Zimmerman, on a rainy Florida night, decided to ignore the police recommendation to stay in his car, and instead ran after, as he put it, “this kid.”

A verdict that could have provided accountability, vindication, and healing did not happen. But we are a nation of laws. The outcome would have to be accepted if the trial was fair. The community would have to just move on if Zimmerman’s acquittal was based on the evidence at trial.

But that was not the case. Because the same suspicions and unexamined biases that Zimmerman harbored in one way or another coursed through the significant players in that courtroom: the defense attorneys, prosecutors, judge, and jury.