Trial by jury: For all its flaws, is there a better hope for justice?



Zimmerman Trial a Global Lesson in Justice Served (Izvestia, Russia)


"Outwardly, this rule under law may appear as social corruption and national disease. But Americans, learning from their 19th century civil war and 20th century civil rights movement, see the steadfast authority of the courts as a recipe for unity and a panacea against discord. While it may appear that national outrage over the Zimmerman case proves the opposite, in actual fact, it strengthens this pattern. ... Such a trial is like a legal FAQ for everyone who, like me, is in need of one."


By Alexander Genis



Translated By John Amor


July 19, 2013


Russia - Izvestia - Original Article (Russian)

Former neighborhood watch person George Zimmerman: Does his trial for the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, the tumultuous public reaction, and the frenzied 24-hour-a-day media coverage prove again the genuis of American democracy?


BBC NEWS VIDEO: Barack Obama: 'Trayvon Martin could have been me', July 19, 00:01:51 RealVideo

It’s hot. Particularly in New York. Hoping to escape the heat, I first made my way into the mountains of Vermont, and then, to Massachusetts and the ocean. But it was no better there. Everyone was burning up with a yearning for the truth - and wouldn't budge from their TV screens.


The legal case against George Zimmerman has taken over the country and splintered it into several groups. One is happy with the verdict, another is outraged by it, yet another has expressed its anger at Times Square, where one can’t get away from it. The rest are willing to listen to the arguments of the jury, who unanimously declared the half Peruvian, 28-year-old neighborhood watch coordinator, George Zimmerman, not guilty in the murder of unarmed 17-year-old Black teenager Trayvon Martin.


On the surface, it seems as obvious as a chess match. When a White man kills a Black one, six White jurors (all women), out of racial solidarity, find the murderer not guilty. In any case, this was how it was understood by the outraged minority, who were joined by certain liberals who, in this instance, I cannot agree with. I care only about the precise details that constitute the essence of the case put before the jury, free of ideological clichés and racial stereotypes.


I feel sorry for them, because anyone can find themselves in that same agonizing position. Whenever I was summoned to court to perform my civic duty, I prayed that I was passed over and not chosen. I mean, it is a lottery - and one with the power to change lives. Frankly,  it never fails to do so, and always for the worse. Trials often drag on for months, snatching you out of the ordinary course of life and condemning you to depressing meetings among a random group of people. Worse still, it falls to you and this random group, to decide the fate of a stranger and live with that decision into old age - if, of course, you’re not shot down by someone avenging the aggrieved. (It's not for nothing that the identities of the jurors in the Zimmerman case have been kept secret and are referred to with letters and numbers).


But jurors enjoy unheard of power: in the massive legal hierarchy, there is no one more important. Jurors are even above the law, because in effect they are the law, the law embodied in plain, average individuals, unburdened by specialized legal knowledge (e.g.: they don’t accept such people onto juries).



And so six women, guilty of absolutely nothing, found themselves - against their own will! - in the midst of a trial in which they first and foremost had to rise above their own innermost prejudices. In America, where race is always an issue, jurors are required to be colorblind, and I believe that if Zimmerman had been Black and Martin White, the verdict would have been the same.


Why do I say that? Because the court was interested only in facts that confirmed the Zimmerman’s story, which justified the incident as an act of self-defense. He shot his adversary only when the latter knocked him to the ground and beat his head (no less than six times) against the asphalt. How do we know this? Because an expert proved that the bullet pierced the teenager’s shirt as he leaned over his prostrate opponent. The fabric was not clinging to his chest, as it would in any other situation, but hung down several centimeters away from the body.


And this is just one example of the sort of meticulous examination that the trial was composed of - all facts and no rhetoric. This and this alone was what the jury discussed in the course of sixteen hours behind closed doors, and before they arrived at the verdict that people are now raving about up and down the country.


One may not agree with the verdict. One can blame police for not conducting a thorough enough investigation. In the course of the trial, the dubious tactics of the prosecution could be criticized, and the brilliant strategy of the defense praised. One may talk of the unconscious prejudice of Whites against Blacks. One can look back at slavery and recall the African heritage of Obama, whom America has chosen as its president for a second time.

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Despite all this, a long conversation could be had about the persistent suspicion of Whites towards Blacks - and vice versa, of course. What cannot be permitted is that a court's decision be made under the influence of outside pressure. However the jurors came to their decision, it is entirely and utterly up to their consciences. And this is most important of all, because the highest value in America is the independence of the courts, which is what makes democracy possible. As the final arbiter of endless disputes nearly impossible for such a complex and contradictory country to untangle, the courts act as a bulwark of justice by standing against the dictates of the majority.


It is for precisely this reason that America worships not only Mammon, but Themis. The legal thriller is a favorite genre of bestsellers, the court drama is a Hollywood classic, the lawyer is hero of every second anecdote. And every time the country is shaken by a sensational trial like it is now, television neglects all other news.


Outwardly, this “nomocracy” [rule under law] appears (as with Solzhenitsyn) as social corruption and national disease. But Americans, learning from their 19th century civil war and 20th century civil rights movement, see the steadfast authority of the courts as a recipe for unity and a panacea against discord.


While it may appear that national outrage over the Zimmerman case proves the opposite, in actual fact, it strengthens this pattern. Such a trial is like a legal FAQ for everyone who, like me, is in need of one.


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Posted By Worldmeets.US July 19, 2013, 6:29pm