Not Impartial: Intersectionality and Jury Nullification in the Trial of George Zimmerman
By now, we have all become very familiar with Trayvon Martin, a 17-year old Black boy who was murdered in Sanford, Florida at the hands of George Zimmerman who now stands trial for second-degree murder. Recently, we were also made aware that jury selection has concluded, and not without critiques and concerns from the public personally invested in the outcome of this case. The jurors, all six of whom are women, (five are white, one is Latina) are cause for at least some rightful worry. Fully understanding the complexities of public concern requires we look into the not-so-distant past where, in the summer of 1955 in Sumner, Mississippi, a 14-year old Black boy was murdered.
Outside a local convenience store, Emmett Till and several other adolescent Black boys and girls hung out, some playing games while others were ‘kidding’ around. Bo’, as Till was called, was challenged to make a pass at the store clerk after bragging to the others about having a white girl back home in Chicago. A northern boy with the stature of a young man (Till was roughly 5’ 5” and 160 pounds), he anted up. After purchasing a few cents worth of bubble gum, Till made a pass at Carolyn Bryant, the store attendant, first asking her on a date then wolf-whistling at her on his way out the door. Sophomoric child’s play amongst young boys by today’s standards, such occurrences in the Jim-Crow South were not to be tolerated. In contrast to Till, Bryant was a mere five-feet, weighing around 100 pounds.
This very scenario juxtaposed the two, physically, within a Birth of a Nation scenario in which such actions, rather than viewed as young boy accepting a dare, were viewed as a credible threat to Carolyn Bryant’s innocence. Some days later, after hearing the whispers and Carolyn’s eventual confession, husband Roy Bryant and brother J.W. Milam tracked Till down; they abducted him, beat him viciously, disfigured his body, and shot him. Till’s body was then dumped into 20-feet of Tallahatchie fresh water, attached to a fan fastened around his neck with barbed wire. Three days and eight miles downstream later, Till’s body was noticed by some boys fishing in the river.
After much discontent and pressure from local communities and national news, a trial with an all-white, all-male grand jury proceeded. For obvious reasons, a jury composed with men such as these in rural Mississippi favored the defense’s need to placate racist and gendered sensibilities as White male protectors in constructing its case. Fast-forward five days; the defendants were acquitted.
After their acquittal and protected by double jeopardy, Bryant and Milam later confessed in an interview with William Bradford Huie of Look magazine to having killed Till. Was this an unknown truth to the jurors involved in the case? Certainly not. However, in such cases where the jury acquits defendants they believe to be guilty, acquittals are for one of two reasons: jurors either a) disagree with the law the defendant has been charged with, or b) believe that the law should not be applied in that particular case. This is known as jury nullification. For Bryant and Milam, the latter seems to be true in that, in mid-century Mississippi, murder isn’t murder if the defendant(s) is white and the victim is Black, especially if the victim has done something socially unacceptable. Then it’s completely justified.
So, what does all this have to do with the George Zimmerman trial? Parallels between these cases emerge when consideration is given to how racialized and gendered assumptions, perceptions, and some realities about Black men and boys manifest as threats worth fearing in the public imagination. In both cases, adolescent Black boys were victims, both of which posed a perceived threat to a white [Southern] way of life by their very existence. How the Black male body, particularly in relation to masculinity, is perceived is key here. Martin, at about 6’ 2” according to his family’s reports, is much taller than Zimmerman, who stands at 5’ 7”. In tandem with his wardrobe, his responses to Zimmerman’s advances, and the community in which he was murdered made his already perceived dominating stature more threatening. His body by itself corroborates images the American public, Blacks included, has grown to fear.
At nearly twice the average age of both victims, I, myself, am barely 5’ 10” and just shy of an athletic 160 pounds. While I’m certainly not perceived as threatening by most accounts – for various other reasons related to how I wear my identities – adolescent Black boys of a similar stature pose a threat to Whiteness – its pureness, righteousness, and socially-opposite position to Blackness. Larger-than-life athletes, commercialized rappers, and the prison industrial complex are all framed by the media to sensationalize a particular, threatening version of Black maleness, a version constantly gaining authenticity by insiders and outsiders.
In addition, the most salient takeaway from the social media backlash of the jurors selected in the Zimmerman case is the almost exclusive discussion of race and nothing about gender. This is problematic; one should not be discussed without the other as the intersection of race and gender of the jury has numerous implications. Enter Intersectionality. Intersectionality theory emerges from critical feminist discourses, particularly from Black feminists, in recognizing the ways in which multiple social systems of oppression (i.e., racism, sexism, and heterosexism) converge and ultimately shape the unique lived experiences of those with intersecting identities (race, sex, gender, etc.). An intersectional analysis illuminates the ways in which sexism as embodied in white female positionality (read hyper-femininity and docility) and racism embodied black male hyper-masculinity further pathologizes black male bodies. This subjugates Black males to a position of lesser consideration as humans and moreso as possible criminals, and further elevates the defender of white middle class symbols (i.e., suburbs) as a justifiable position.
Now, it is not definitive this jury will acquit Zimmerman. However, this defense's case rests on established race and gender narratives, much as the defense did in 1955. Given Zimmerman’s defense – the need to defend himself against a perceived threat, the attempts to construct a public backstory of Martin as a troublesome teen are only part of the equation. Deficit narratives of Black men and boys, en masse, are much a part of these jurors socialization whether they are familiar with the case as result of the year and a half media storm prior to their selection. While they were screened for bias as related to a number of factors, I doubt such screening was pushed through an intersectional lens. Now, I am not suggesting such socialization related to Black males is inherently white. Nevertheless, the socialization of Black xenophobia itself is as American as apple pie, both of which so happen to be situated within Whiteness in normalized ways. What is more, the foundation upon which the defense rests is empathy, while the prosecution’s case is firmly on sympathy. Given most of the jurors are older and white (see descriptions here), the defense may have a pretty good shot in convincing the jury Zimmerman had reasonable fear resulting in shooting Martin. This jury is well aware Zimmerman is, in fact, the shooter. However, why he shot Martin is the critically important dynamic if such justification for doing so meets the criteria for a second-degree murder conviction. All things being equal, if America’s history with race and gender are victorious, I find it hard to consider a jury overwhelmingly composed of white women will not be empathetic to the defense’s case. As result, yet another instance of jury nullification may be upon us. I just wonder what further damage the outcome of acquittal will do the fabric of an already compromised system of – and belief in – justice.