Racism, the U. S. Justice System, and the Trayvon Martin Verdict

What happens when African Americans don’t get a jury of their peers?

Flint Taylor

On July 13, 201, supporters of Trayvon Martin waited in front of Sanford, Florida's Seminole County Criminal Justice Center for the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial. The mostly white jury found Zimmerman, who is Latino, not guilty in the murder of the unarmed black teenager. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

While the unques­tion­ably unfair ver­dict in the Trayvon Mar­tin case, ren­dered in Flori­da by five whites and one Lati­na, should be deeply trou­bling to per­sons of all races who care about racial jus­tice, U. S. his­to­ry, as well as the cur­rent racial real­i­ty in this coun­try, teach­es that it should not come as a surprise.

The jury, simply put, decided that a white police wannabe could justifiably profile an unarmed African-American 17-year-old as a criminal, hunt him down, and fatally shoot him.

The jury, sim­ply put, decid­ed that a white police wannabe could jus­ti­fi­ably pro­file an unarmed African-Amer­i­can 17-year-old as a crim­i­nal, hunt him down, and fatal­ly shoot him. 

Mar­tin fam­i­ly attor­ney Ben­jamin Crump likened the case to that of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Chica­go boy who was kid­napped and bru­tal­ly mur­dered in Mis­sis­sip­pi in 1955. Oth­ers have posit­ed the ques­tion: What would the result have been if the accused was African-Amer­i­can and the vic­tim was white? The Scotts­boro case—nine black boys wrong­ful­ly accused of rap­ing a white woman in Alaba­ma in the 1930s — comes to mind. In both cas­es all-white juries deliv­ered clear­ly racist ver­dicts, acquit­ting Till’s mur­der­ers and con­vict­ing the Scotts­boro Boys.

To be sure, those cas­es arose in the Deep South dur­ing the vio­lent­ly racist Jim Crow era more half a cen­tu­ry ago. But the ver­dict in the Mar­tin case once again expos­es that the jus­tice sys­tem in this coun­try is still fun­da­men­tal­ly racist. Black pres­i­dent or not, juries will con­tin­ue to set white per­pe­tra­tors free while wrong­ful­ly con­vict­ing African Amer­i­cans so long as a jury of your peers” means an exclu­sive­ly or pre­dom­i­nate­ly white jury.

Here in Chica­go, in 1969, Black Pan­ther Par­ty lead­ers Fred Hamp­ton and Mark Clark were slain in a hail of gun­fire. It was lat­er con­clu­sive­ly shown that the pre­dom­i­nant­ly white raid­ing police fired more than 90 bul­lets, while the Pan­thers fired just one. Yet no mur­der charges were ever brought, the raiders were acquit­ted by a Demo­c­ra­t­ic-machine judge, and a civ­il jury, com­prised of five whites and one black, hung, with the black juror, along with one white, hold­ing out for the Pan­ther victims.

In Greens­boro, North Car­oli­na in 1979, a car­a­van of Klans­men and Nazis drove into town and mas­sa­cred five anti-Klan demon­stra­tors, wound­ing at least 10 more. Much of the cold-blood­ed attack on this mil­i­tant mul­ti-racial group was cap­tured on video tape, yet all-white juries twice acquit­ted the white suprema­cist per­pe­tra­tors — first of mur­der, then, in a sub­se­quent fed­er­al tri­al, of crim­i­nal civ­il rights vio­la­tions. A six-per­son civ­il jury lat­er brought back a com­pro­mise ver­dict against some of the defen­dants, dri­ven by the only black juror over the resis­tance of the four south­ern white jurors.

In Chica­go in 1982, Andrew Wil­son, an African Amer­i­can who was charged with mur­der­ing two white Chica­go police offi­cers, was bru­tal­ly tor­tured with elec­tric shock and burn­ing by Chica­go police Lieu­tenant Jon Burge and sev­er­al of his ass­kick­ers.” Then Cook Coun­ty State’s Attor­ney Richard M. Daley refused to pros­e­cute Burge, so Wil­son pur­sued a civ­il suit. Although Wil­son stood con­vict­ed of the mur­ders when his civ­il case went to tri­al in 1989, a racial­ly mixed six-per­son jury hung, three to three along racial lines. On retri­al, an all-white jury found Burge and his asso­ciates not liable for the tor­ture they committed.

In Los Ange­les in 1991, Rod­ney King, an African Amer­i­can motorist, was bru­tal­ly beat­en by sev­er­al white cops, with the beat­ing cap­tured on video­tape. Nonethe­less, a state court jury that had no black rep­re­sen­ta­tion acquit­ted the offi­cers of state crim­i­nal charges. The acquit­tal so out­raged the African-Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty that riots ensued. Sub­se­quent­ly a racial­ly mixed fed­er­al jury con­vict­ed two of the four charged offi­cers of crim­i­nal civ­il rights violations.

More recent­ly, aid­ed by DNA evi­dence and the rev­e­la­tion of ram­pant police and pros­e­cu­to­r­i­al mis­con­duct, hun­dreds of African-Amer­i­can men who were wrong­ful­ly con­vict­ed by pre­dom­i­nant­ly white juries have been freed. Just last month, in Chica­go, Daniel Tay­lor was exon­er­at­ed after two decades in prison. At 17, Tay­lor was con­vict­ed of mur­der on the basis of a coerced con­fes­sion, despite the fact that the jury was pre­sent­ed with uncon­tro­vert­ed evi­dence that Tay­lor was in police lock­up at the exact time of the mur­der. Only one African Amer­i­can sat on Taylor’s 12-per­son jury. In stark con­trast, an all-white jury in Joli­et, Illi­nois last month acquit­ted a white police offi­cer whose wan­ton beat­ing of Shan­tique Jack­son, an African-Amer­i­can woman, was record­ed on videotape.

The para­mount rea­son that few or no blacks served on these juries is that, his­tor­i­cal­ly and today, under­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of blacks is built into the selec­tion sys­tem from start to fin­ish. Until the 1960s and the pas­sage of the Vot­ing Rights Act, jury pools, which were drawn from vot­er lists, were vir­tu­al­ly all white in the Jim Crow South. And in many of the infa­mous ver­dicts since then, the demo­graph­ics of the juris­dic­tion made the pool of blacks small to begin with. In the Rod­ney King case, for instance, the venue in the state crim­i­nal case was moved from Los Ange­les to the vir­tu­al­ly all-white Simi Valley. 

Addi­tion­al­ly, tri­al judges con­trol who is excused for cause, and often reflect both their own and the sys­tem’s bias­es. Some­one with a crim­i­nal back­ground is vul­ner­a­ble to being excused for cause by the judge, par­tic­u­lar­ly in crim­i­nal cas­es, as is a per­son who has been a vic­tim of a crime, has a fam­i­ly mem­ber in prison, or has a bias against police or law enforce­ment. These con­di­tions dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly affect black Amer­i­cans. Tri­al judges also con­trol the ques­tion­ing of prospec­tive jurors, and they all too often avoid or lim­it prob­ing ques­tion­ing that could expose a juror’s racial bias in order to pro­tect jurors from embar­rass­ment. (Of course, judges can also have a pos­i­tive effect: In the Greens­boro civ­il case, a lib­er­al judge brought in from Vir­ginia was bound and deter­mined not to have a third all-white jury, so, after con­duct­ing exten­sive ques­tion­ing and excus­ing more than 200 white jurors because of their declared racial bias­es, he forced the lawyers for the City and the KKK to let a black per­son sit; it was that juror who was respon­si­ble for there not being a third not guilty verdict.)

Then there are the pre-emp­to­ry chal­lenges exer­cised by the lawyers. Although, since the U.S. Supreme Court’s deci­sion in Bat­son, pros­e­cu­tors — and lawyers defend­ing police, white suprema­cists, and the like — can­not overt­ly use race as a rea­son to chal­lenge a juror, they still work very hard to exclude the few blacks who make it onto the venires in racial­ly polar­ized cas­es because they know that the more white the jury is, the bet­ter chance they have to win. It is also impor­tant to note that the blacks who do sit, par­tic­u­lar­ly if they are the only one, are under a tremen­dous amount of pres­sure to go along with the dom­i­nant white major­i­ty — a pres­sure that they have his­tor­i­cal­ly been sub­ject­ed to since birth — and it takes a par­tic­u­lar­ly strong indi­vid­ual, like the juror in Greens­boro, to resist that pres­sure and main­tain his or her beliefs. 

The deci­sion by the pre­dom­i­nate­ly white Zim­mer­man jury, like all those that have come before it, demon­strates once again that jurors are swayed by their racial bias­es. This is par­tic­u­lar­ly true in cas­es where the evi­dence pits whites against blacks, where the stan­dard is rea­son­able doubt” as in all crim­i­nal cas­es, and where racial stereo­types are per­mit­ted to go unchal­lenged by oper­a­tion of the legal fic­tion that race is not an legit­i­mate issue in the case and there­fore can­not be men­tioned. Sad­ly, until the jus­tice sys­tem and its juries reflect the actu­al diver­si­ty of this coun­try, and the pow­er­ful issue of race is open­ly and fair­ly dealt with in racial­ly charged cas­es, we can expect this racial­ly dri­ven dou­ble stan­dard of jus­tice” to con­tin­ue unabat­ed with the pre­dictable result of more jar­ring­ly unfair ver­dicts like the one that was so quick­ly and cold­ly ren­dered in the Trayvon Mar­tin case.

Flint Tay­lor is a found­ing part­ner of the People’s Law Office in Chica­go. He is one of the lawyers for the fam­i­lies of slain Black Pan­ther lead­ers Fred Hamp­ton and Mark Clark, and togeth­er with his law part­ner Jef­frey Haas was tri­al coun­sel in the marathon 1976 civ­il tri­al. He has also rep­re­sent­ed many sur­vivors of Chica­go police tor­ture, was involved in the strug­gle for repa­ra­tions, and has done bat­tle with the Chica­go Police Depart­ment — and the Fra­ter­nal Order of Police — on numer­ous occa­sions over his 45 year career as a people’s lawyer
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