They were formally summoned into court in Sanford, Florida, in early June without being accused of any crimes or misdemeanors. For many of them, it was their first time in a courthouse, much less a courtroom.
Once in the courthouse, they were constantly under the watchful eyes of court bailiffs. They were paraded into the courtroom where they were interrogated about their backgrounds and beliefs.
Then the final six jurors and four alternates were sequestered (confined) in a hotel for the duration of the trial. They were kept from their jobs and normal family life for almost a full month.
They were subjected to restrictions on where they could go, what they could read, what they could watch on TV (even convicted felons doing hard time can watch TV!), and even limitations on how often they could speak to their family members.
Day after day, they were subjected to the boring drone of dueling lawyers, quibbling over what must have seemed to be mind-numbing trivia and battling expert testimony. All in all, they listened patiently to 56 witnesses, and considered 84 evidence photos and voluminous documents. The testimony was often extremely emotional and fiercely disputed. The racially charged case drew international media attention as emotional issues of neighborhood security, racial profiling, and due process under enormous community pressures were contested before a packed courtroom and national television/Internet audience.
Then they were locked in a room until they decided, by unanimous vote, the guilt or innocence of the accused. And for all this, they received the paltry sum of $30 per day, considerably less than the minimum wage.
Who were these folks who were subjected to such cruel and unusual treatment? Hardened criminals? Repeat offenders charged with heinous crimes? No.
They are the jurors who were selected to hear the state’s second-degree murder case against George Zimmerman. They are our peers, who, without any formal legal training, sat in judgment of a fellow citizen, with a potential sentence to life in prison waiting in the wings.
They were asked to “do justice”… to speak as the conscience of our community. These jurors represent the cornerstone of our system of justice, tracing their roots back to the Magna Carta and the rich heritage of the English judicial system. They were charged with the public trust. They were called upon to weigh the evidence, to assess the credibility of witnesses, and to figure out the truth.
What a sacrifice these ordinary citizens made for the orderly administration of justice! Quite simply, these six (plus four) “tried and true” gave up their jobs, their families, and normal life for almost a month. They endured ten days of intrusive voire dire and jury selection and then were sequestered for the duration of the 23-day trial. They missed the traditional, three-day Memorial Day weekend and were isolated from family and friends for over three weeks. Let’s face it, being a juror requires enormous patience, objectivity, perseverance, and a fair measure of raw courage.
Since juries rarely see simple cases (the vast majority of both civil and criminal cases are settled before trial), occasionally jurors are called upon to hammer out compromises to reach their verdicts. And, of course, they provide our legal system with the element of common sense that is so alien to combative, overly aggressive trial lawyers.
Our system of justice asks a lot of jurors. Jury duty is a solemn civic obligation similar to voting that is played out in thousands of federal and state courts around the country every day.
Yet, jury service is also a duty that many in our community chose to duck. They ask to be excused from jury duty because they are too busy or too important (“I’m the CEO and this is crunch time for our budget process”). Also, lengthy jury trials that make sensational headlines scare off many potential jurors.
Regrettably, those of us in the legal profession too often pay scant attention to the commitment and personal sacrifice made by jurors. Some simply take their service for granted and move on to the next case.
Instead, we in the legal profession should look for every opportunity to ease the burdens on jurors and make the best system of justice in the world even better.
Maybe we can’t shorten jury trials, maybe we must admonish our jurors for fear they will believe everything they read in the morning papers or see on the evening news. Maybe we can’t totally shelter our jurors from community pressures and intimidation because of the constitutional sanctity of open and public trials.
I believe we can. We should reach for solutions to these nettlesome challenges that linger in our judicial system.
Many will disagree with the jury’s finding that George Zimmerman is not guilty. There will be angry protests over the verdict, which had to be crushingly disappointing to the prosecutors and so many others who gathered at the courthouse each day in support of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
Bitter disputes over the verdict are sure to continue for some time, fueled by the media and TV circus that has surrounded the trial. But, like it or not the jury has spoken.
For now, all of us (no matter our personal view of the verdict) should take a deep breath, and salute the Zimmerman jurors for a job well done. In quietly doing their civic duty under extremely difficult circumstances, they did our nation’s jury system proud.