KATHLEEN PARKER: A jury of his peers?

By Kathleen Parker

WASHINGTON – The headlines were immediate: All-women jury chosen for George Zimmerman’s trial.
To briefly recount, Zimmerman, 29, is charged with the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman, a volunteer watchman, saw Martin walking through his neighborhood, thought he looked suspicious, and the rest is familiar to anyone reading this.
What makes the jury interesting, other than the head-snapping reporting of its composition, is that it forces to the fore all the implications we try to avoid: Do gender, race, ethnicity (age, sexual orientation, and so on) matter when it comes to judging one another? We like to think not, yet, admit it, the reason the all-women jury made headlines is because it raises those very questions.
Indeed, those questions are at the heart of the prosecution’s case.
Zimmerman, who avers that he acted in self-defense, is accused of profiling Martin and acting accordingly. Because Martin was African-American and wearing a hooded shirt (it was raining), Martin presumably took him to be dangerous – inherently so, not because of anything overtly threatening.
Consciously or not, we all make such judgments every day. We cross the street to avoid someone whose dress, behavior or some other signal makes us feel less secure. It’s human nature deeply rooted in thousands of years of survival.
Understanding this is no justification for harmful actions, obviously, but behavior can’t be judged independent of context. This is the essence of what Zimmerman’s jury will have to consider. Under the circumstances, might a reasonable person have responded as Zimmerman did? As to what really happened during a scuffle only Zimmerman is alive to describe, jurors will have to fill in blanks using their own best judgment.
And what about that jury?
Most likely, news of the all-women panel prompted involuntary thoughts: Can such a jury fairly judge a man? Would we ask the same were the defendant a female and the jury all-male?
If two jurors are so softhearted that they rescue animals (would that everyone did), are they tough enough to condemn a man to life in prison? Will five white women be inclined to side with Zimmerman because of their similar skin pigmentation and possible experiences with race?
We naturally recoil at such questions because they offend our sense of justice. We trust juries because there is no better alternative. By our consent to the process, we are putting our faith in the better angels of man’s nature. We console ourselves with the knowledge that jurors typically take their jobs seriously and try to be fair. But history also reminds us that intentions are not reliable predictors of behavior. We tend our biases in secret, sometimes even from ourselves, and we project our own experiences onto others.
In our racially diverse, proudly multicultural nation, it isn’t clear whether a jury of one’s peers is possible. Whatever the outcome, the Zimmerman trial will force us to confront our own biases – a necessary step toward the aspiration we call blind justice.
KATHLEEN PARKER can be reached at kathleenparker@washpost.com.