Objectivity and the duties of citizenship

I served on a jury a little over a year ago, which I’ve been thinking about a lot this weekend. I remember two overriding themes of the experience. First, the “training” video and all the judge’s instructions emphasized jury duty as a form of citizen service: we were there as citizens, peers of the accused, and this job was to be undertaken with great seriousness. Second, we were to be as objective as possible, making our decisions based solely on the evidence presented to us and according to the letter of the law. This second was underlined by the selection process, in which two possible jurors were dismissed because they were unlikely to be able to be impartial (one was related to a police officer, another had strongly negative feelings about alcohol intoxication).

The deliberations proceeded accordingly. As we discussed the case, we pored over the specific wording of the criminal charges, laying out the evidence in relation to the judge’s instructions. We weighed the differences between levels of doubt–what was reasonable, what was likely. We evaluated the lawyers’ success at making their cases, cross-checked against a presumption of innocence.

Over the weekend, I thought of this when I read that the jury in the Zimmerman trial had requested clarification on Florida’s manslaughter charge. I remembered the pressure to be technical and legalistic, and the lesson that the job of a juror is not to decide innocence or guilt, but to measure a lawyer’s case against the wording of a law.

This is, I think, an important distinction to keep in mind. The effect can be strange. Those making the final decision are hemmed about with restrictions–what may be considered, and what may not be. The enterprise turns on the wording of a law, or on the particular way it delimits the case one is allowed to judge. In this case, we see how a law designed to protect the person claiming self defense makes it difficult to prove murder. Such a technical view of justice and the determining of legal truth presses jurors to view as extraneous and outside the scope of the trial any other issues that in a common sense view would be readily understood as relevant. The shape of an entire night is reduced to the dynamic of the encounter in the moment before death. Context disappears. And this replacement of context with technicality is, of course, an important technique for maintaining structural racism while erasing race itself.

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