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Desmond Meade Headshot

Jim Crow Impacts Juries in Florida, Denying Justice for Trayvon Martin

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A few of days ago, I awoke to news that a Supreme Court decision, which ripped out the heart of the Voting Rights Act, has cleared the way for Gov. Rick Scott to resume the purging of voting rolls in Florida. About 12 hours after hearing this sordid news, George Zimmerman was found innocent in the trial involving the killing of Trayvon Martin. Given the vast variety and copious amount of opinions related to Trayvon which are percolating incessantly within media today, you may wonder what more I can add. But the truth is that buried beneath the various discussions about the failure of justice for Trayvon is a ruefully overlooked fact which stems from Florida's abysmal denial of civil rights. Disfranchisement policies in Florida rigged the jury, robbing it of the very representativeness that we assume is needed for a fair verdict.

One of the various features that we noted during the trial was the presence of a jury that was all-woman and almost entirely white. Among the various factors that accounted for this, one is oft-ignored. See, the jury pool is selected from the list of eligible voters in the county in which a trial is being held. The list of eligible voters in Seminole County, the location of Trayvon's killing, just happens to be disproportionately populated by women, so a jury containing mostly women should come as no surprise. But then there's the question of race. Given that Florida maintains the unfortunate distinction of leading the nation as the state with the harshest and most restrictive disfranchisement policies, it is easy to understand why the makeup of the jury was almost entirely white. Florida's egregious zeal for disfranchising its own citizens means that over 1.54 million Floridians, with over 500,000 of them African-Americans, have been stripped of their right to vote, hold public office, and sit on a jury. Because Florida has refused to disavow the Jim Crow policy of disfranchisement, citizens who have served their time not only cannot vote, but they also cannot serve on a jury - and this restricts the jury's diversity, which is a critical ingredient of the pool's representativeness. Now, some might argue returning citizens shouldn't be allowed to serve on a jury given their past run-ins with the law, but I remind those who advance such an argument that one of the jurors in the Zimmerman trial admitted to being arrested once before. Yet that created no problem. The use of preemptory strikes and challenges for cause allow both the defense and prosecution to remove a prospective juror; however, those strikes are limited. In particular, preemptory strikes allow a juror to be removed without either side having to give an explanation. Challenges for cause, however, requires that the prosecution or defense articulate a legitimate reason to exclude a juror. While the removal of a juror due to the juror's race can easily be masked by the use of preemptory strikes, to do so with a challenge for cause is prohibited.

Let's be clear about this, a prior felony conviction does not by itself bar someone from being on a jury. The key is whether or not their civil rights have been restored. And the fact that so many Floridians have had their rights stripped away means that the strength of our jury pools is at best moot and at worse an affront to justice. Is someone who drove with a suspended license, burned a tire in public, and released hot air balloons not qualified to be on a jury? I am reminded of when Jesus said "whoever is without sin, cast the first stone."

African-Americans account for approximately 11 percent of the population in Seminole County. Because 1 out of every 4 black men being disfranchised in Florida, that number is further diluted. Not having the right to vote not only silences our voices in policy decisions, but it also prevents us from participating in the judicial process; this, in turn, strips away our ability to maintain representative juries. A lack of representative juries in our court-rooms undermines public trust in the courts as a mechanism to peacefully resolve conflicts and it also strips away the power of our communities to adequately do justice for the wronged. That disfranchisement policies have so effectively silenced and disempowered our communities calls into question the very notion that verdicts in Florida derive from a jury of one's peers. Instead, what such polices engender is a jury of fears. In that sense, Governor Rick Scott's recent attempt to purge Florida's voter polls only serves to heighten the urgency for reform, guided by a firm belief that every American should be given the opportunity to not only have their voice heard, but should also have an opportunity to participate in how justice is dealt.

That disfranchisement and marginalization of returning citizens, who are stripped of their right to vote and right to serve on a jury, was involved in the verdict should outrage every Floridian and every American; it should also, however, prompt us to re-examine our society to understand the roots of injustice. At some point we must ask ourselves "is the life of a young black man wearing a hoodie just as valuable as a young white man?" At some point we must examine the marginalization and exclusion of people of color. In the coming days, weeks, and months ahead, I sincerely hope that we begin to start asking more questions and planning more action. For the sake of Trayvon and to prevent future Trayvons, we should expect nothing less.