Beyond a Reasonable Doubt …

George Zimmerman’s not guilty verdict is reverberating throughout the country. Many are outraged and crying racism, many are glad that the justice system “worked”. Of course none of us really know if he is guilty or innocent – we weren’t there and we didn’t hear all of the courtroom evidence. However, that doesn’t stop us from speculating or from making our own judgments based on what the media is presenting, coupled with our own experiences and biases.
To me, the thing that was obvious from the start of the trial was that proving guilt would be highly problematic.
I served on a jury about a year ago. A man was on trial for causing damage to personal property by crashing into a wall at an apartment complex. The security guard did not actually see the crash, but the man who was near the car when he arrived was the obvious suspect. Although the car was his, he said a friend was driving and took off running after the accident. He didn’t know the friend well, he said, and didn’t know where he lived. This certainly wasn’t a big deal “case”, but somehow it was deemed worthy of a jury trial.
By the way – a small parallel to the Zimmerman case — the defendant was black and the security guard was Hispanic. Our 9 person jury was selected from a pool of about 50 people, primarily white men and women. I’m not sure why the pool was not more racially mixed, but that’s the way it was that day. One black man was selected.
We listened to testimony for several hours. Right before we were sequestered to come up with our verdict, we were firmly lectured by the judge that a guilty verdict required us to be sure “beyond a reasonable doubt”. I think that phrase was used about 5 times prior to the trial and another 5 times right before our dismissal to the jury room. I was voted jury foreman. My first “straw poll” question to the group was …… do you think he is guilty or not guilty? All of us immediately said “not guilty”. At that point, the black man laughed and said … “And we know the guy is guilty as hell, right?”
Yes … most if not all of us suspected that he was the driver of his own car and didn’t have a “friend” driving that day. But … here’s the rub … the prosecuting attorneys did not prove BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT that he was guilty. The security guard was confusing and not very credible. Another witness was even worse. The young attorneys did a lousy job of asking questions and making connections.
Given the evidence, we couldn’t come up with a guilty verdict, even though we probably would have liked to.
When we went back to the courtroom with our verdict, I watched the defendant smile. The prosecuting attorneys looked ill. I wanted to explain. But we couldn’t. We were thanked by the judge and dismissed immediately.
As we walked together out of the courtroom into the darkening parking lot, we all looked at each other. One women said, “Well, we did what they told us to do, you know. Beyond a reasonable doubt”. We all nodded and parted ways.
Our justice system is a good one. It doesn’t always get it right, but it’s better than any alternative. It forces us to be less biased and less judgmental than we might otherwise be.
I feel empathy for the jury in the Zimmerman trial. They did their jobs. They came up with a verdict. They were not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt.
I’m not empathetic with those who are now flaming the fires of anger and hate – on either side of the issue.