THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Sophia A. Nelson Headshot

How Race and Racial Stereotypes Swayed the Zimmerman Trial Jury

Posted: Updated:
Print

The verdict is in. And it is disturbing. We can argue all day about whether or not the prosecution made its case, or whether the defense distorted the facts. But for me the issue is the fact that race and racial stereotyping is at the very core of this case.

And truth be told, it is what decided the outcome of this case. The juror who has spoken out, quickly got a book deal, and then recanted the book deal, has all but confirmed what many Black Americans have long suspected about how race and stereotypes can influence juries in America.

Is this 2013 or 1963?

If you were to close your eyes and pretend that you are sitting in the Deep South 50 years ago. A black male youth is dead. An older, non-black man has pursued, stalked and shot him to death. Then immediately, after the shooting there is no arrest. Worse, the killer is allowed to go home and sleep in his own bed. Weeks go by until he is finally arrested and only after the Civil Rights Community steps in and the media steps up, does the law enforcement of that community step in and act. Doesn't this sound familiar? Its reminds me of the movies Mississippi Burning or A Time to Kill.

If we continue down the Alice in Wonderland Rabbit hole, it gets worse: The trial is set. The jury is selected. The jury is 100 percent white (with one Hispanic as an alternate) and female. The defense has an aggressive legal team that paints the fallen victim as angry, violent, the aggressor. They say he attacked their client (who by the way was armed with a loaded gun) and banged his head on the sidewalk as his weapon. They argue that their client, the admitted killer of the young black man (actually he was a teenage boy of 17 years) was acting in self-defense. The jury is charged with the law by the judge. They disappear into the basement of the courthouse to deliberate.

In 16 hours or so over two days the jury comes back with a "not guilty" verdict, even though the core tenants of "manslaughter" were clearly met under the law. Those tenants were: 1. Trayvon Martin was dead. 2. George Zimmerman admitted to killing him with a firearm. That is all the state has to prove to meet the manslaughter charge. Unlike the 2nd degree murder charge, Manslaughter did NOT require the jury to get inside George Zimmerman's mind, or to his intent. It just required that he took a life, not in defense of himself. The self-defense claim is all encompassing, and serves as a "complete" defense to either of the charges.

Bottom line: the assailant is acquitted and he walks free. His family takes to the airwaves and trashes the dead victim. The outcry of injustice from the black community is so great, that even the nation's first black president has to weigh in and make a public statement about his own experiences as a black man with racial profiling.

Here is my point: The jury of all white women, I believe could relate not to Trayvon Martin, but instead to George Zimmerman. The one juror who took to the media airwaves referred to him as "George" as if she knew him. She talked about him having a "good heart." There was no such connection between the juror and Trayvon Martin. In point of fact, the jury related to Zimmerman's fears about young black men. Because they have those same fears.

The jury related to Zimmerman's disdain for "those assholes" who always "get away" with crimes against peaceful, law abiding whites or others. They related to the overt and subtle images that the defense very carefully inserted into the case over and over starting with Rachael Janteal as the star prosecution witness. She too was the victim of racial and gender stereotypes. Ms. Janteal is a full-figured woman, dark-skinned, with small squinty eyes, and in the view of many she is smart-mouthed and strident. She and attorney Don West sparred for hours, much to the chagrin of many of us watching the dialogue. I am certain the jury was turned off by her testimony and found it not very credible.

Stereotypes Aren't Funny When they Follow You

Consider the images the defense showed of Trayvon during their closing: shirtless, dark, shadows, hooded. They described him as the hunter, as the man who lay in wait to jump poor George Zimmerman who was just doing his job as a "watchman" for his community. They made the jury sit in silence for four minutes. And then argued Trayvon Martin could have simply run away. Instead he stalked George Zimmerman, and viciously attacked and assaulted him almost to the point of death. It is simply mind-numbing to see what the defense argued and ultimately prevailed on relative to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

Experts call this type of manipulation of the jury: "priming" which is a social psychological term of how you can show an image of a black person as a criminal that will raise the inherent, unconscious biases of those seeing the images. Everyone in America, including blacks, has been ingrained for decades to fear black males. Particularly to fear young black males, with certain clothing, and at certain times of the night. We all know the drill. We all know the image. We all know.

The all-white female jury, I believe, related more to their primal fears about black men, then to the facts before them. The facts are clear in this case. And facts are stubborn things. The facts in this case are not even in dispute. The facts show that George Zimmerman decided one night that young, unarmed, 16-year-old black Trayvon Martin was "suspicious" and that as a result he needed to be pursued, detained or worse shot to death. How convenient it is to forget that Zimmerman was told to NOT pursue Trayvon. Zimmerman was told to STAY in his car by authorities. He was a watchman, not a policeman. He had no right to pursue Trayvon Martin. Period.

The 911 tapes tell us all what we need to know. Zimmerman had motive and opportunity to kill Trayvon. Rachael Janteal was the last person to hear Trayvon Martin alive on his cell. Trayvon was the hunted one. Trayvon was afraid. Trayvon was in fear for his life. So he did what any of us (black white, male or female) would do when confronted by a large man with flashlights and a loaded GUN. He fought for his life. And sadly upon fighting for his life, he was shot to death in his chest, and he lost his life. But the real travesty is that his killer walked free that night, and again last night was set free by a jury of his peers.

In the final analysis, this case is yet another tragic miscarriage of justice in the long, sordid history of black men in the American judicial system. I asked you to close your eyes and pretend it was 50 years ago. The reality is that it is not. It is 2013. We are in the 21st Century, not the 19th century. Trayvon Martin had a right to be where he was that night. He was doing nothing wrong. He was shot dead for walking while black. I hope that someday, my fellow Americans not of color can grasp the visceral injustice of this fact. I hope that someday, race will not be a factor in how we arrest, prosecute and ultimately judge cases in America.