Zimmerman Verdict Exposes Systemic Racism in Jury Selection

Former public defender Aram James, and co-founder of ACJP, has seen the inner-workings of the courtroom for decades. The Zimmerman verdict, he writes, is emblematic of systemic issues such as racial bias in jury selection that must be addressed if justice is ever to be achieved for black life like Trayvon Martin.

trayvonshirt_largeOver the last several weeks I have had a chance to see many hours of the Zimmerman trial on television and have paid close attention to many of the instant, self-described, legal scholars and commentators on both sides of the issues raised by this trial.

Spoken and unspoken throughout the trial, and the proceedings leading up to the trial, including the media coverage was a palpable racial tension from the start, going back to 2012 when the Sanford Florida police refused to arrest George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin. And then we found, once the long delayed trial began, that the jury that was selected was made up all most exclusively of white folks.

One thing that hit me viscerally as the disbelief of the verdict set in was my commitment to double my efforts to promote racial justice in a broken criminal “injustice” system — my long held personal opinion, only magnified 100 fold as a result of tonight’s verdict and the racially tinged atmosphere that pervaded the criminal proceedings through-out.

I also was left with a number of questions regarding the case, andthe system that allowed for this verdict.

How is it that in 2013, in a country that claims to be post-racial, (a simplistic notion marketed by the media during the post-election celebration of Obama) that our criminal justice system can still allow for an all white (maybe one non-white juror) jury in a case as racially charged from the start as the one involving Trayvon Martin’s cold blooded murder?

What happened to the requirement that juries represent a cross section of the community, particularly in a case dripping with racial division, controversy and animus?

How is that we let things in our criminal injustice system get so far afield, that Florida allows criminal cases to be tried in front of a jury of 6 not 12?

The jury selection process exampled in the Zimerman case in essence cuts the guts out of the concept of obtaining a truly diverse cross-section of the community on our juries.

The jury issues of the Trayvon Martin murder case is just the latest example of thousands of criminal cases that are tried in this country every year that involve black defendants and black victims of crime, where black jurors are still routinely shut out of the process, if not entirely, almost so.

It is the time to insist that juries in this country that are judging black defendants or black victims of violence, like Trayvon Martin, be judged by at least some, if not a majority, of black jurors.

This is an idea triggered by a provocative proposal written by Law professor and regular legal commentator, Paul Butler in a law journal article: Racially Based Jury Nullification: Black Power in the Criminal Justice System, published in the Yale Law Journal in 1995.

In Paul Butler’s piece on race based jury nullification, he quotes Malcolm X in words that seem most appropriate on this night when, yet again—justice has been denied along racial lines.

“[T}he time that we’re living in now…is not an era where one who is oppressed is looking toward the oppressor to given him some system or form of logic or reason. What is logic to the oppressor isn’t reason to the oppressed. And what is reason to the oppressor isn’t reason to the oppressed. The black people in this country are beginning to realize that what sounds reasonable to those who exploit us doesn’t sound reasonable to us. There just has to be a new system of reason and logic devised by us who are at the bottom, if we want to get some results in this struggle that is called: the ‘Negro revolution.'”

** (Malcolm X, Speech at the Leveret House Forum of March 18, 1964, in The speeches of Malcolm X at Harvard. 131, 133, (Archie Epps ed., 1968)

Now is the time to open up an urgent dialogue on race and our criminal justice system, as the life and integrity of our country now depends on it.

Each of us is now responsible to make certain that no more Trayvon Martin’s are allowed to be demonized and murdered, without a remedy, by a white supremacist criminal justice system.

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