September 2013 Bar Bulletin
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September 2013 Bar Bulletin

Zimmerman Meets Saintcalle: Implications on Racial Equality

By Autumn T. Johnson


It might be easy to assume Florida v. George Zimmerman was either a fluke and has no implications on the state of racial equality in the United States or, at best, has nothing to do with Washington. However, the Washington Supreme Court's recent decision in State v. Saintcalle1 might suggest otherwise. Not only is racial bias a problem, but it affects juries and, thus, verdicts.

The New Yorker distilled the Zimmerman trial to two basic issues: "what constitutes self-defense" and "the enduring and toxic way that race stains the most basic interactions."2

In July, six jurors acquitted Zimmerman of murdering Trayvon Martin, as well as all lesser-included offenses. There is no doubt that Zimmerman killed Martin, but the jury determined that Zimmerman had acted in self-defense. The jury was comprised of six women: only one, a Latina, belonged to a racial minority.3

Zimmerman was a Neighborhood Watch volunteer. From the 911 recording, it is undisputed that Zimmerman left his car and pursued Martin, contrary to instructions from the emergency operator. After a struggle, Martin was shot.

Shortly after the verdict was announced, Juror B37 participated in an interview on CNN. B37 admitted to considering testimony the judge had specifically instructed the jury to disregard and that the jury did not discuss or even consider race or racial profiling.4

We could argue endlessly about the validity of "Stand Your Ground" laws or whether Zimmerman truly acted in self-defense. But I think the real question is, "What does the verdict mean?" Does it reveal anything about racial equality in the U.S.? Is there racial bias in jury selection or jury deliberations? Does a Florida case have any bearing on what happens in Washington?

Arguably, the answer to all three questions is, "Yes." After the verdict, a study by the Pew Research Center revealed a stark divergence in people's reactions to the news.5 Eighty-six percent of African Americans surveyed were dissatisfied with the result, and 78 percent of African Americans surveyed said the case raised important issues about race that need to be discussed. Among whites surveyed, only 30 percent were dissatisfied with the verdict and only 28 percent thought the case raised important issues about race that need to be discussed. Moreover, 60 percent of whites surveyed said they thought race was getting more attention than it deserved.

One cannot help but wonder what role prejudice and stereotypes played in this case. Would the verdict have been the same if Martin had been white and Zimmerman had been African American? What if Martin had been female? Does the fact that Martin was a black man have any bearing on whether a jury would consider Zimmerman's asserted fear of imminent bodily harm reasonable? Would shooting a 17-year-old female have been considered reasonable force? Does someone's skin color or gender really reveal anything about how dangerous a person may or may not be or whether that person may be armed?

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