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Why Zimmerman Juror B29 Believed in His Guilt But Still Voted to Acquit

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

The lone Latina juror in the George Zimmerman murder trial flatly said that she thought Zimmerman was guilty.

Yet juror B29 still voted to acquit. She gave out mixed signals as to why she did. The first reason was that the evidence wasn’t there. But she also quickly added that she held out for a few hours trying to hang the jury presumably because she felt the evidence really wasn’t there for a clean acquittal.

This second signal is far more revealing as to why a juror that believes one thing, in this case that Zimmerman is guilty, but still went along with the majority, the white jurors, and voted to acquit him. The key to understanding why she did can be summed up in two words: juror pressure. This is far different from juror intimidation. That’s a crime and is severely punished.

Juror pressure is far more subtle and amorphous but poses an even bigger challenge to getting a just and fair verdict in a trial than outright intimidation, which can be documented in only a tiny number of cases.

The problem of juror pressure on a dissenting juror has long been known by defense attorneys and prosecutors. In a study as part of the National Center for State Courts project on hung juries, researchers conducted post-trial surveys that covered 367 trials, all of which resulted in unanimous decisions, and surveyed nearly 4,000 jurors in several states. They found that in nearly 40 percent of the cases there was at least one juror who thought that the defendant was either innocent or guilty but still went along with the majority and made the jury verdict unanimous.

The researchers went further and tossed in cases where the jurors were faced with multiple charges against a defendant. The number of juries with jurors who wanted to convict or acquit on one or more of the charges, particularly the lesser charge, leapt to more than half of the juries that brought back unanimous verdicts on all counts. And since studies have shown that few trials wind up with hung juries, the disturbing conclusion is that there are a lot of jurors that simply cave to the majority in a lot of trials.

The Zimmerman trial then was no aberration and fit the pattern in which a juror that truly believed that he was guilty but could go along with the pack anyway. Her rationale that the evidence wasn’t there doesn’t square with research that shows that dissenting jurors often go along with the majority not because they are convinced about points of evidence but because they bow to what’s been called “normative pressure.”

Put simply that means that a juror who stands as the lone holdout is under relentless and harsh pressure from other jurors to knuckle under. The pressure from the push for speed, verbal battering and the threat of social ostracism is virtually impossible to resist.

The problem is made worse by the notion in many trials that it’s virtually impossible for a dissenting juror to say with absolute certainty whether the position of the majority for the guilt or innocence of the defendant is the right one, and whether the verdict would do horrible legal damage or be an unpardonable injustice.

The certainty though is that decisions made when jurors are browbeaten to reach a verdict that they don’t agree with pollute the judicial process. They make a mockery of the notion that jurors reach verdicts in trials solely because the prosecution has proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt, or because the defense has shredded the prosecution’s case to the point where it appears the defendant is either outright innocent or at the very least deserves to be acquitted based on the lack of evidence.

A defendant then is entitled to a verdict that reflects a juror’s genuine belief about their innocence or guilt and not a verdict that’s based on pressure or simple expediency.

Judges play a big part in how juries ultimately decide a case by simply making it clear in their charge to the jury that a juror should not vote for a verdict that he or she does not truly believe is correct, and that a juror is under no obligation to go along with a decision just because a majority of jurors agree on a position. How forcefully that admonition is conveyed to jurors is subject to huge question, and the Zimmerman trial is no exception to that.

Zimmerman got several benefits in his trial. One was that he was found innocent. The other was that the prosecution did not prove its case. But the biggest benefit was that even when juror B29 thought he was guilty and should have been convicted she still voted to acquit.

In the end, juror B29 was no different from countless other dissenting jurors in countless other trials who succumbed to juror pressure. The pity is that she succumbed in this trial.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.