The lone Hispanic juror in the George Zimmerman murder trial flatly said that she thought Zimmerman was guilty. Yet juror B29 still voted to acquit. She gave out mixed signals why she did. The first reason was that the evidence wasn't there. But she also quickly added that she held out for a few hours trying to hang the jury presumably because she felt the evidence really wasn't there for a clean acquittal. This second signal is far more revealing about why a juror that believes one thing, in this case the guilt of Zimmerman, but still went along with the majority white jurors and voted to acquit him. The key to understanding why she did can be summed up in two words: juror pressure. This is far different from juror intimidation. That's a crime and is severely punished. Juror pressure is far more subtle, amorphous, but poses an even bigger challenge to getting a just and fair verdict in a trial than outright intimidation which can be documented in only a tiny number of cases.
The problem of juror pressure on a dissenting juror has long been known by defense attorneys and prosecutors. In a study as part of the National Center for State Courts project on hung juries, researchers conducted post-trial surveys that covered 367 trials, all of which resulted in unanimous decisions, and surveyed nearly 4000 jurors in several states. They found that in nearly 40 percent of the cases there was at least one juror who thought that the defendant was either innocent or guilty but still went along with the majority and made the jury verdict unanimous. The researchers went further and tossed in cases where the jurors were faced with multiple charges against a defendant. The number of jurors that wanted to convict or acquit on one or more of the charges particularly the lesser charge leaped to more than half of the juries that brought back unanimous verdicts on all counts. And since studies have shown that few trials wind up with hung juries, the disturbing conclusion is that there are a lot of jurors that simply cave to the majority in a lot of trials.
The dissenting Zimmerman trial then was no aberration and fit the pattern of a juror that truly believed that he was guilty but went along with the pack anyway. Her rationale that the evidence wasn't there doesn't square with research that shows that dissenting jurors often go along with the majority not because they are convinced about points of evidence but bow to what's been called "normative pressure." Put simply that means that a juror that stands as the lone holdout is under relentless and harsh pressure from other jurors to knuckle under. The pressure from the push for speed, verbal battering, and the threat of social ostracism is virtually impossible to resist. The problem is made worse by the notion in many trials that it's virtually impossible for a dissenting juror to say with absolute certainty whether the position of the majority for the guilt or innocence of the defendant is the right one, and that the verdict would do horrible legal damage, and be an unpardonable injustice.
The certainty, though, is that decisions where jurors are browbeaten to reach a verdict that they don't agree with pollutes the judicial process and makes a mockery of the notion that jurors reach verdicts in trials solely because the prosecution has proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt or that the defense has shredded the prosecution's case to the point where the defendant is either outright innocent or at the very least deserves to be acquitted based on the lack of evidence. A defendant then is entitled to a verdict that should reflect a juror's genuine belief about their innocence or guilt and not a verdict that's based on pressure or simply expediency.
Judges play a big part in how juries ultimately decide a case by simply making it clear in their charge to the jury that a juror should not vote for a verdict that he or she did not truly believe was correct and that a juror is under no obligation to go along with a decision just because a majority of jurors agree on a position. How forcefully that admonition is conveyed to jurors is subject to huge question, and the Zimmerman trial is no exception to that.
Zimmerman got several benefits in his trial from the jurors. One was that he was innocent. The other was that the prosecution did not prove its case. But the biggest benefit was that even when juror B29 thought he was guilty and should have been convicted she still voted to acquit. In the end, juror B29 was no different from countless other dissenting jurors in countless other trials who succumbed to juror pressure. The pity was that she succumbed in this trial.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new ebook is America on Trial: The Slaying of Trayvon Martin (Amazon). He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM 1460 AM Radio Los Angeles and KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network.