The Zimmerman Trial and the Meaning of Verdicts

Trials by jury encourage faith in our legal system.

In every "trial of the century" (and each year seems to produce a few), the national news media waits for "the verdict." It is the culmination of the energies of the lawyers, the court, and the observers and can be the most anticipated moment in a case. This frenzy of anticipation has now turned toward the jury in the George Zimmerman murder trial in Sanford, Florida.

Criminal trials generate dramatic tension. Lawyers battle witness by witness, argument by argument, to convince a jury of the rightness of their cause. For the parties not privy to the deliberations in the jury room, there is no more heart-stopping moment than the announcement of the verdict. The foreperson stands up. A hush fills the room. Usually, jurors keep their facial expressions impassive, although occasionally a smile or tear betrays them. Then the judge turns to the foreperson and asks, "Has the jury reached a verdict?" When the foreperson responds, "Yes," everything stops and all eyes turn toward the jury.

The verdict is the final answer--a resolution to the problem that shattered the community order. It represents the moment of accountability. Derived from French and Latin, the word "verdict" means "to say the truth" or "a true saying." But in a constitutional sense, there is a different truth at issue. In the adversarial system, the truth gets measured against the standards of proof and legal instructions given to jurors. It is not about the facts of the world outside, but what evidence was produced in court. For those not sequestered from the Zimmerman trial, we know what was excluded and why. But the jurors only know what was introduced in court. Other legal systems have chosen to adopt an inquisitorial system, where judges act as prosecutors as well as fact finders to investigate what really happened in the case. The American choice of an adversarial process with a jury took a different path. We do not ask jurors to investigate the truth, but instead to evaluate the evidence against the standards of proof.

Can anyone really say what happened that night in Florida? We have our views, but those views are no better than anyone else's opinion. Many times it is just not possible to find out what really happened. That's why we have juries. In fact, while emotionally unsatisfying, the burdens of proof are supposed to lessen the burden of judgment for jurors. Instead of being weighted with the sometimes-impossible task of figuring out what really happened, jurors are asked only to measure the evidence produced against the standard of proof. In criminal cases, prosecutors have a job to do, and most welcome the burden. They are bringing their case because they believe in the evidence. The jury, then, merely evaluates what the government has produced and decides whether the evidence is convincing beyond a reasonable doubt. As Justice Scalia has written, the jury acts "as a circuit breaker in the State's machinery of justice."It holds the state accountable for trying to take the life or liberty of an individual.

Presented by

Andrew Guthrie Ferguson is an assistant professor of law at the UDC David A. Clarke School of Law, and author of Why Jury Duty Matters: A Citizen’s Guide to Constitutional Action (NYU Press 2013). 

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