For months, headlines anticipating George Zimmerman’s trial rarely left out mention of the “all-female jury.” Now, after the more than disappointing verdict, discussions about the trial’s “all-female jury” have reappeared. Take a moment away from from the nonsensical debate as to whether or not the Zimmerman trial was about race, because I think most of us know it was (and still is) about race. Allow me, for a moment, to draw your attention to one example of how this case was also very much about gender.
When most of us think of an American jury, it resembles something along the lines of the all-male/all-white jury depicted in Twelve Angry Men along with an American nostalgia for our country’s paternalistic democratic process. But in the real world, at least in the 21st century, our juries are supposed to be representative of voting American citizens. This, of course, excludes convicted felons (some of whom are completely innocent) and, due to recent changes in the Voting Rights Act, some states will be able to enact voting regulations that create more obstacles for certain citizens to vote.
Undeniably, an all-female jury is a huge historical feat worth acknowledgement and celebration. Yet more unsettling is the fact that, 100 years after women won the right to vote, a jury composed entirely of women is still ground-breaking news. The surprise was not so much that the jury ‘s composition was possible, but more so that selection of their homogenous gender presentation must have been intentional.
I wonder, why would the lawyers select a jury of all women? What kind of jurors are women, anyway? What, if anything, is the media suggesting by reminding us of the selection of a entirely female jury? Are they simply commenting on the courtroom rarity of six female jurors, or have they seized another opportunity to reinforce their beliefs in gender stereotypes by placing them in historically male positions?
As you probably know, juries are selected by the judge and the attorneys, who would be stupid not to use this as an opportunity to strategize and systematically choose their jury. The Orlando Sentinel writes, “All-women juries are extremely uncommon. And a jury made up entirely of women in a racially charged, nationally watched second-degree-murder trial is unheard of.”
To me, it seems that the homogenous gender identity of the jury must have been an intentional choice. This is an especially tempting assumption, considering that 2 of the 4 alternate juror picks were also women. In a case where some have argued that the case rested upon the jury’s position on gun-laws, there was only one woman on the jury who admitted to possessing a concealed weapon and the others did not appear to have strong opinions either way.
Even though women are included in the overall jury pool, it is rare to see juries that seat more women than representative of area’s population demographic. In Seminole county, where the trial was held, women are only 49% of the population and thus, some could argue, unrepresentative of the County.
So, how did we end up with eight out of ten women on the jury (including the alternates)? Was it really random, or was it in fact, intentional? How can this be possible when both sides of the case get a say in the jury’s selection?
After doing a little bit of Google-ing around, I, unsurprisingly, noticed that everyday, run-of-the-mill stereotypes of women as emotionally weak and indecisive do not disappear in the courtroom. Female jurors are believed, by some law professionals, to be more sympathetic to victims and easily swayed by appeals to emotion and protection, rather than by logic and evidence. For centuries, women have been viewed as moral arbiters– but only as long as it is pertains to household affairs.
Of course, here lies the legal framework. Both sides of the case claimed that their clients were the victim.
During the trial, Zimmerman’s lawyer muddled the line between victim and perpetrator, defense and prosecution. If there is any truth to these stereotypes, neither side takes the advantage of the alleged benefits of an all-female jury because both Zimmerman and Trayvon have been portrayed as the victim, depending on who you talk to. Some viewed the jury’s demographic to be an obstacle for Trayvon’s defense due to existence of only one woman of color on the jury. Meanwhile, others thought the jury’s shared female gender would pose a threat to Zimmerman’s defense. Even further, a USA Today article suggests that Zimmerman’s lawyer benefitted from an all-female jury:
“The thinking behind his theory was that women would be less judgemental in a self-defense case where lawyers would be asking them to put themselves in the position Zimmerman found himself when he killed Trayvon.”
It is unclear who sought out the jury’s all-female composition, and the reasons behind why they did so. But what is clear, is that their underlying assumptions about women as jurors must have been part of their decision-making process because the selection is not gender blind.
This jury, by the right of being entirely female, stepped into the courtroom to both try a case, and be tried by the public. As a result, either way the case went, the all-female jury would be seen as fitting a courtroom stereotype in alignment with the verdict; such as female jurors as hyper-responsive to sentimental arguments, as sympathetic to self-defense claims of Zimmerman or as protective mothers in solidarity with Trayvon’s family.
Looking back, it seems that ever since women gained the right to sit on juries through the suffragette movement’s gain of the right to vote in 1920, there have been obstacles when it comes to the integration of women into the courtroom. Despite our idealized nostalgia for the 1960s, there were still states that prohibited women’s right to serve jury duty. A 1961 Supreme Court case, Hoyt v. Florida, decided that jury duty was not mandatory for women. This issue rose again to the Supreme Court in 1974’s case Taylor v. Louisiana in which an all-male jury convicted a male kidnapper. The jury selection did not disqualify women from participating, rather the state of Louisiana required that women have previously declared her desire to serve in a written statement before the case (Florida also had the same rule). This time, Hoyt v. Florida was overturned, ruling that women could not be automatically exempted from jury duty on the basis of their gender.
And, still, recent evidence has proven that the jury selection process is not blind and is actually very much race and gender cognizant. Our country’s shock over the selection of an all-female jury for a critical nationally momentous trial evidences that despite enfranchising women almost a century ago, we still do not expect to see women appear in positions of legislative power – unless, that is, they are being strategically appointed in order to elicit a specific verdict.