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On the jury and in life, a history of exclusion

Killing Blacks: fear of the unknown

Merdies Hayes | 7/18/2013, midnight
In view of the outcome of the George Zimmerman murder trial, many spectators within the African American community have pointed ...

In view of the outcome of the George Zimmerman murder trial, many spectators within the African American community have pointed to what they see as an unfair and inaccurate assessment of Black youth by a panel of six suburban women—in particular, what was a perceived “dehumanization” foisted upon Travon Martin’s friend, Rachel Jeantel, by the defense attorneys Don West and Mark O’Mara.

Jeantel, a Haitian immigrant, was an early prosecution witness who said she was on the phone with Martin shortly before his deadly encounter with Zimmerman. Because of her youth, accent, lack of a formal education and use of urban slang, some observers in the Black community believe the jury interpreted her as an angry, resentful “ghetto child,” reflecting the long-held stereotypes of Black urban youth.

For instance, Juror B37 this week told CNN host Anderson Cooper that she “ … pitied [Jeantel] for her inadequacy.” Since her time on the stand, Jeantel has been lampooned in the media as uneducated, unsophisticated and, effectively, unreliable in convincing the mostly White jurors that Martin was racially profiled.

Because of Jeantel’s appearance, poor pronunciation and verbal skills, and her supposed angry and combative demeanor on the witness stand, her testimony was effectively dismissed as an ethnocentric display of anti-White rage. The jury may have acquitted Zimmerman because they placed themselves in the defendant’s position. Within this framework, if it had been one of them, or if their child had to fight off a violent Black boy—and if they carried a gun—they would have used it. Though the Zimmerman defense team did not invoke the “Stand Your Ground” statute during the trial, Circuit Court Judge Debra Nelson did allow the jury to consider the law as it applied to Zimmerman.

Black males were excluded from the jury panel, it is felt, because the defense believed they could not yield an unbiased assessment of Zimmerman’s actions. So too were White males excluded. Black women couldn’t serve on the jury, either. The defense saw the maternal bond between these women and a teenager as too risky for their client. They speculated that a Black woman juror could very well have a son the same age as Martin and, subsequently, throw her sympathies toward the prosecution.

Attorney Jose Baez, who helped get Casey Anthony acquitted in the death of her daughter, Caylee, said late last month that the selection of an all-woman jury was a “slam dunk” for the defense. “I think the defense clearly won the day on this one,” Baez told CBS News. “Any way you slice and dice it, this is a defense jury. I think the defense certainly wanted to avoid African Americans sitting on the jury because of all the racial tensions.”

The national conversation over the verdict shows two sides talking about two different things: either the two minutes that Zimmerman and Martin were fighting, or the centuries of racial context that many believe caused a senseless death. Guided by the law, the jurors were told to exclude everything before those tragic seconds such as the belief that Zimmerman thought Martin was suspicious because he was Black, wearing Hip Hop garb and, supposedly, lurking in the rain and peering into houses at the Retreat at Twin Lakes community in Sanford, Fla.