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Carol Anne Costa: Race + Justice Collide Again in America’s Courts

Thursday, July 18, 2013

 

In Sanford, Florida a homogeneous jury retired to a room and deliberated for a mere 2 days and delivered a verdict to Presiding Judge Debra S. Nelson, the people of Sanford and the world.Their collective and unanimous decision has sparked more questions than answers, and provided a rare and stark glimpse into the jury room.

In the wake of that decision a national conversation about the impact of race and prejudice in our system of justice has ensued. Reactions which are not always uplifting, as vitriol, hate and stupidity have free flowed into social media feeds from the left and the right. Every group or person with an agenda has cherry picked the verdict and spun it mightily to fit a political cause. At the end of the day there remains a dead teenager, acquitted defendant and a nation wrestling with those two realties.

As a former Superior Court Trial Clerk in the Rhode Island Judiciary, I have witnessed and clerked hundreds of jury trials, both civil and criminal ranging from slip and falls to brutal murder cases. In my experience, our RI bench and bar take great pains to consistently provide a fair and just trial for defendants and victims, as well as civil litigants; from jury selection with honest and open voir dire, to well argued pretrial motions, right through to well vetted jury instructions. But, what happens in the jury room belongs to the jury and the jury alone. Please know, I respect the service and sometimes disagree with the outcome. It is also my experience that jurors often bring with them individual pre-conceived notions, racial and otherwise, personal agendas and will either dig in, advocate or acquiesce. And, juror B37 just proved that to the world, when in her post trial interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper  revealed in my view, the huge factor race and agenda played in this case. Without examining these comments in the context of how the system works we can never move forward.

A Shabby Prosecution Reinforced Racial Mistruths

Starting with seating an all female and predominantly white jury (save one woman of Latino heritage) justice for Trayvon slipped quickly away with each hole punched in the prosecution’s case, with each unprepared prosecution witness and with each anemic objection to defense theories clearly based on supposition rather than fact. Make no mistake, Mark O’Meara and Don West came armed to the teeth with a well presented theory of the case and a great big smelly skunk (when a defense attorney throws a skunk into the jury box, remember you can remove the skunk but the odor will linger).

And, did they ever use them. What B37 said post trial certainly indicated that this jury held a sympathetic view of Zimmerman while Martin, the victim, proved seemingly an afterthought, who found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. This jury accepted wholesale the defense’s case and shame on the prosecution team for a less than zealous effort. Those jurors should have been presented a frame of reference of the terror that that young man was feeling when being stalked by Zimmerman. And if you don’t think that is true, you need an African American friend! A new friend who can explain to you that sending a black youngster into the world is a much different proposition than sending a white youngster and this is a fact.

B37’s Comments Screamed Race!

I find B37’s comments much more shocking than the verdict itself. As a juror you are you are under oath to apply the facts in evidence to the law given you by the judge and further instructed to find, not to feel or think. If we look closely at post trial comments my instincts tell me that her lack of understanding of those of differing cultures and races prevailed in her deliberations. Stand your ground was never argued, yet B37 said this, “Because of the heat of the moment and the Stand Your Ground. He had a right to defend himself. If he felt threatened that his life was going to be taken away from him or he was going to have bodily harm, he had a right.” How did that get into the jury room? The apparent sympathy for Zimmerman was also troubling, “I feel sorry for both of them. I feel sorry for Trayvon, in the situation he was in. And I feel sorry for George because of the situation he got himself in.” Finally, the patronizing way she spoke about 19 year old witness Rachel Jeantel speak volumes. When asked by Cooper about the “cracker” remark B37 replied, “I don’t think it’s really racial. I think it’s just the everyday life, the type of life that they live, and how they’re living, in the environment that they’re living in.” They? Really? That screams of a racial divide. 

This case will prompt a renewed look at race in this nation and in our judicial system. Hopefully, Trayvon did not die in vain and we as a nation will learn something from his death, may it provide progress rather than regress. I am hopeful it not only sparks a national conversation but desperately needed intimate conversations; the racial schisms that exist will never close unless we engage person to person. It behooves us all to process this case in the light of every defendant and victim that seeks justice in our courts. After all, each of us is ultimately a juror.

Carol Costa is a public relations and community outreach specialist; she has experience in both the public and private sectors. She is the Chairwoman of the Scituate Democratic Town Committee and has extensive community affairs and public relations experience. She previously served in the Rhode Island Judiciary for nearly 17 years. Carol also enjoyed a successful development stint at the Diocese of Providence as Associate Director for Catholic Education and is currently a public housing manager for the Johnston Housing Authority. Her work has been published in several local outlets including: GOLOCALPROV, Valley Breeze, The Rhode Island Catholic, and Currents Magazine.

 

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