The jury probably did the right thing in the George Zimmerman case. Given the absence of good evidence about what happened between him and Travon Martin during those last five minutes, the defense established reasonable doubt about whether a crime, under Florida law, had been committed.
That doesn’t mean Mr. Zimmerman is innocent (just not guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt”) and it doesn’t mean he was right for tailing a young man simply because he was black.
But what does this have to do with my Central New York personal injury cases? A lot, actually. Every time we represent an African American in a Central New York courtroom, we have to wonder — will the jury treat him or her fairly? Will the jury harbor prejudices?
There is no question that a jury emphasizes more with victims who look, act and talk like they do. This is human nature. The more “different” someone is from you, the easier it is to distance yourself from their situation, from their suffering. And when that victim is black, the problem is magnified.
Example: I represent a young black man who was stabbed and sliced up in a Syracuse night club. We allege the night club was negligent in allowing the violent felon who assaulted him to circumvent the metal detector and security check and enter with a sharp metal instrument. Will the jury (which is predominantly white in all Central New York courtrooms) prejudge our client based on his race? Will they assume that since he is black he himself must be violent (he is not!), that he somehow provoked the attack (he did not!) or willingly participated in it (not!)? Would the jury harbor the same suspicions if our client looked like their (white) son or brother?
These are all questions we personal injury lawyers must address in “jury selection”, the first part of the trial where lawyers get a chance to talk to prospective jury members about their possible prejudices. But the real problem is not the prejudices the jury will admit to – those we can deal with by removing jurors who admit they can’t overcome their biases. The real problem is the prejudices that the jurors either won’t admit to or don’t even recognize in themselves. Those jurors will probably remain in the jury box – and their hidden prejudices may percolate into their decision making.
Be honest. You’ve got prejudices. If you are a fair-minded person, you do your best to overcome them, to judge people, in the words of Martin Luther King, by the “content of their character and not by the color of their skin”. But that doesn’t mean those prejudices aren’t there, where they’ve remained imbedded deep in your subconscious since early childhood. Can you overcome them in the jury deliberation room? If you happen to be in my jury pool on this case, that’s what I’ll be trying to figure out . . ..
Email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org I’d love to hear from you!
Michael G. Bersani, Esq.
michaels-smolak.com Central and Syracuse NY Personal Injury Lawyers
Michaels & Smolak, P.C.