Zimmerman & Anthony: Juries are Actually Pretty Good at What They Do

Make your story very simple! Don’t confuse the jury! We repeat these mantras over and over again. To our colleagues, we say things like “Well, yeah, but do you think a jury would understand that?” The trial attorney is constantly worrying that the poor uneducated peons on his or her jury just won’t understand his or her brilliant argument. “The problem is, I’m just too smart to be a trial lawyer” thought at least half of the world’s attorneys. And it’s understandable that we’d think that way. Law school must have, at the very least, made us better at looking at facts and applying the law, right? We are uniquely able to set aside our emotion and use those analytic skills that cost a shit ton of money to acquire.

Except that, if you’ve been watching the news lately, it appears that the free of crushing debt never went to law school masses are actually pretty good at analyzing the law. In both the Casey Anthony and George Zimmerman cases, the jury thoughtfully listened to the evidence and then considered the law. They then applied the law and acquitted the defendants even though they really didn’t like them. That’s not something jurors are supposed to be able to do!

George Zimmerman

Yep, I’m wading into the shark infested waters that is the Zimmerman trial. That’s how you know I’m a bad ass. So, let’s just get one thing straight–there are huge gaping and disturbing racial disparities in our justice system. It is despicable and something should be done about it (I should do a post on it sometime, it’s certainly an appropriate topic for a website entitled “bitter” anything). But also, can we clear up one other nuance in the law that everyone seems to be missing — a murder trial is about whether there is enough evidence to show that a murder in fact occurred. It is not a referendum on race in America. It’s one guy (or girl (but usually a guy)) and some facts and some law and that’s it.

I’m not going to go into a detailed factual summary; 1) I’m not at work and so I don’t have write a factual summary, so I’m not going to and 2) If you seriously haven’t heard about this case, then why are you even on the internets at all?

The jury agreed (even the the juror most supportive of Zimmerman agreed) that Zimmerman’s actions led to the shooting and, absent his actions, Martin would still be alive. One juror went as far as to say that Zimmerman got away with murder. Whaaaaaat?!?!?! He got away with murder?!!? But you still acquitted him!?! What happened with this crazy juror? Well, it turns out that, although she disagreed with Zimmerman’s actions, she thought she should apply the facts to the law given to her. ”You can’t put the man in jail even though in our hearts we felt he was guilty. But we had to grab our hearts and put it aside and look at the evidence.” She was able to think these thoughtful things without dropping three years of her life and 100k on a piece of paper. Well shit. Apparently six lay people (females none the less) were able to put aside their emotions and apply the facts to the law. Because, the truth is, there was nothing to contradict Zimmerman’s accounts of what happened. And the prosecution had to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. And, a suspicion that someone is a racist asshole just isn’t enough to find that they did something you aren’t sure they did.

Casey Anthony

“Well, that was just a fluke! Normal people can’t usually make hard analytic decisions when emotions are in play!” Says . . . I don’t know . . . certainly someone. “Their brains aren’t good enough . . . or something. That’s why people need attorney’s to be smart for them and shit!”

If ever there was a case to test a juror’s ability to differentiate between probably guilty of something and guilty of murder beyond a reasonable doubt, it’s this one.

Again, go look up a detailed description of the facts yourself. This is my free-time. I will not do it for you.

Despite the prosecution’s brilliant “She duct taped her mouth shut to suffocate her (also chloroform)!” argument, the jury found that there wasn’t enough evidence to convict her of murder. They reasoned (I assume) that they didn’t know the cause of death and an accidental drowning sounded a lot more reasonable than a duct tape killer. I mean, if you are going to kill someone, why wouldn’t you just put a bag over their head? There has to be a more effective way than trying to very economically place duct tape over both the mouth and nose of a human being so that no air can get in.

The jury, again, admitted to hating Casey Anthony, but when they used their surprising powers of reason, they didn’t feel that was enough for a conviction. One juror said ”I did not say she was innocent. I just said there was not enough evidence. If you cannot prove what the crime was, you cannot determine what the punishment should be.” The same juror went on to say “don’t you have to know how they killed someone or why they might have killed someone, or have something where, when, why, how? Those are important questions. They were not answered.” You missed the whole point you silly juror! You were supposed to react based purely on emotion like some sort of enraged animal! What right do you have to actually think?! Maybe you should be a law school professor. You could explain these new ideas in trial advocacy like motive, who, what, when, where, why and . . . oh . . . how.

What’s the lesson from all of this? Well maybe we (us attorneys) should be a little less condescending about the general population’s ability to understand our jobs. They seem to have it under control. Trial advocacy classes are constantly telling attorneys to try to appeal to the jury’s emotions as if it is a super secret way to trick a jury. That’s condescending and unfair. Certainly, emotion comes into it, but the only people I see acting purely on emotion and without any concern for reason is the media (Yeah, I went there, so what?).

(image: Symbol of law and justice in the empty courtroom, law and justice concept via Shutterstock)

2 Comments

  1. Recognizable Guest

    August 15, 2013 at 7:42 am

    I’m not ready to believe that these aren’t isolated incidents. You have two examples from high-profile cases. I have decades of anecdotal evidence telling me that the general public is two steps above short bus ridership.

  2. underjones

    August 24, 2013 at 12:33 am

    I’m still a law student, so perhaps my arrogance hasn’t kicked in full swing (or maybe I’m more arrogant than an attorney already), but it seems that lawyers, judges, and legislators tend to get things very wrong that anyone on the street would get right.

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