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On the jury and in life, a history of exclusion


In view of the outcome of the George Zimmerman murder trial, many spectators within the African American community have pointed to what they see as an unfair and inaccurate assessment of Black youth by a panel of six suburban women—in particular, what was a perceived “dehumanization” foisted upon Travon Martin’s friend, Rachel Jeantel, by the defense attorneys Don West and Mark O’Mara.

Jeantel, a Haitian immigrant, was an early prosecution witness who said she was on the phone with Martin shortly before his deadly encounter with Zimmerman. Because of her youth, accent, lack of a formal education and use of urban slang, some observers in the Black community believe the jury interpreted her as an angry, resentful “ghetto child,” reflecting the long-held stereotypes of Black urban youth.

For instance, Juror B37 this week told CNN host Anderson Cooper that she “ … pitied [Jeantel] for her inadequacy.” Since her time on the stand, Jeantel has been lampooned in the media as uneducated, unsophisticated and, effectively, unreliable in convincing the mostly White jurors that Martin was racially profiled.

Because of Jeantel’s appearance, poor pronunciation and verbal skills, and her supposed angry and combative demeanor on the witness stand, her testimony was effectively dismissed as an ethnocentric display of anti-White rage. The jury may have acquitted Zimmerman because they placed themselves in the defendant’s position. Within this framework, if it had been one of them, or if their child had to fight off a violent Black boy—and if they carried a gun—they would have used it. Though the Zimmerman defense team did not invoke the “Stand Your Ground” statute during the trial, Circuit Court Judge Debra Nelson did allow the jury to consider the law as it applied to Zimmerman.

Black males were excluded from the jury panel, it is felt, because the defense believed they could not yield an unbiased assessment of Zimmerman’s actions. So too were White males excluded. Black women couldn’t serve on the jury, either. The defense saw the maternal bond between these women and a teenager as too risky for their client. They speculated that a Black woman juror could very well have a son the same age as Martin and, subsequently, throw her sympathies toward the prosecution.

Attorney Jose Baez, who helped get Casey Anthony acquitted in the death of her daughter, Caylee, said late last month that the selection of an all-woman jury was a “slam dunk” for the defense. “I think the defense clearly won the day on this one,” Baez told CBS News. “Any way you slice and dice it, this is a defense jury. I think the defense certainly wanted to avoid African Americans sitting on the jury because of all the racial tensions.”

The national conversation over the verdict shows two sides talking about two different things: either the two minutes that Zimmerman and Martin were fighting, or the centuries of racial context that many believe caused a senseless death. Guided by the law, the jurors were told to exclude everything before those tragic seconds such as the belief that Zimmerman thought Martin was suspicious because he was Black, wearing Hip Hop garb and, supposedly, lurking in the rain and peering into houses at the Retreat at Twin Lakes community in Sanford, Fla.

“The justice system is essentially saying that context doesn’t matter,” said George Ciccariello-Maher, a professor at Drexel University, in an AP interview this week.

“It’s not illegal to be a racist stalker—that’s extraneous to the legal question of self-defense.”

Because Black teenagers have traditionally been viewed by White society as pepetrators of a so-called “ghetto pathology” or “thug mentality,” both Jeantel’s performance and the defense team’s depiction of the late teenager (i.e. past marijuana use, attempted burglary, his use of the pejorative “cracker”) may have swayed individual jurists to side with the defense because of a limited interpersonal relationship with Black youth.

With Zimmerman’s injuries and the testimony of certain key eyewitnesses being more than sufficient for his defense, this circumstance placed the prosecution in the near-impossible position of having to disprove self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt. There are 29 states that have adopted a form of “Stand Your Ground” law. In Ohio, rather than forcing the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that it was not self-defense, the defendant must hold the legal burden. In this case, the defense must prove it more likely than not that self-defense was justified. This legal distinction probably would not have swayed the Florida jury, but it would have made it much tougher for Zimmerman to walk free.

Alan Jenkins, executive director of the Opportunity Agenda, said Zimmerman likely acted on “pernicious, racial stereotypes” when he suspected, followed and killed the unarmed boy. “The same stereotypes underlie too many decisions by police, employers and others in our society, denying African American young people and others the promise of equal opportunity for all,” Jenkins explained.

“We all carry around stereotypes and we have a shared responsibility to overcome them, by committing to equal opportunity, by acting on evidence instead of bias, and by requiring training, guidelines and accountability for people in power. If George Zimmerman, as a Neighborhood Watch member, had had that commitment, training and guidance, this tragedy might never have happened.”

If the jurors knew the sociological, cultural, and historical precedents for the specter of so-called Black male criminality—and how these tropes are propagated in mass media—then, perhaps, it would have viewed Trayvon Martin as the kid he was, instead of the life-endangering Black menace that, supposedly, justified Zimmerman’s deadly decision.

In California as well as nationally, the negative perception of some Whites about African American youth has sparked one of the largest debates regarding race relations up to an including the Leonard Deadwyler case in Los Angeles, the Ron Settles case in Signal Hill, the Rodney King verdict, the O.J. Simpson trial, the Tyisha Miller tragedy (killed in 1999 in Riverside by four White police officers while she slept in her car with a pistol on the front seat), the Johannes Mehserle verdict (the BART police officer who mistook his service revolver for a taser in the shooting death of unarmed Oakland resident Oscar Grant), the not-guilty verdict of four New York City police officers who killed unarmed Bronx resident Amadou Diallo, and a litany of such instances of the killing of young Black persons who were mistaken for criminals or simply seen as threatening.

“Trayvon Martin is more valuable to America as a dead young Black man than he ever was alive,” said Phillip Jackson of the Black Star Project. “As a dead symbol, the president can claim him as a son he never had, but as a living Black man, the American criminal justice system claims one out of three young Black men born after 2001. As a dead symbol, Republicans can claim that Trayvon deserves his right to live as an American, but many living young Black men, like Trayvon, are stripped of their rights everyday because of harsh, racially-targeted and overly-punitive laws created by and pushed by Republicans.”

Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s acquittal have sparked the familiar call for a national conversation on race, and, although President Obama famously said that if he had a son “ … he would look like Trayvon Martin,” as a living Black boy, it is easily likely Martin wouldn’t be able to get a job at a local fast-food restaurant.

But there are viable solutions, Jackson said, to the perception and plight of Black teenage boys, some of which are comprehensive and substantial efforts and actions to “ameliorate the persistent stain on our nation’s reputation for fairness and equality.”