Zimmerman – race or gender? Guest blogger: Marcus Einfeld

Following their counterparts in the US, the attention of the international media has been attracted by the acquittal last Saturday by a Miami jury of 6 women of neighbourhood watch monitor George Zimmerman for shooting dead a young black teenager Trayvon Martin. My knowledge of the matter comes only from media reports but I have taken the trouble to seek out some of the more responsible outlets for these observations.

There was no dispute that Zimmerman shot and killed Martin who was unarmed at the time. Zimmerman claimed that Martin attacked him and that he fired in self-defence. Even Trayvon’s mother, although unquestioningly loving of him, has not suggested that her son was an angel.

Understandably having regard to the long repression of African Americans by the predominant white population, there has been an outcry of racism as the sole or main explanation for the jury’s unwillingness to convict Zimmerman of either murder or manslaughter. Black celebrities like Beyonce have appeared at demonstrations to attack the verdict. President Obama spoke of the possibility that he might once have been Trayvon. Unlike Australia and many other places including other states of the US, a conviction for manslaughter in Florida would apparently have brought a sentence of life imprisonment.

It is well known that America has had serious problems of racism throughout its history, and there is no reason to believe that either Zimmerman or his jury was unaffected by this scourge, one way or the other. However, there was apparently no evidence at the trial that Zimmerman had any history of racist attitudes or views.

Moreover, before this jury was selected, each of the original panel was allowed to be interrogated about their possible biases and other motivations. This process, not generally followed in Australia or the UK, is designed to and often does throw up serious prejudices on the part of potential jurors that might affect the fair judgment of the case. Nothing apparently emerged to suggest that any of the eventual six jurors had any views that militated against an unbiased verdict in this case.

So allow me to put an entirely different possible explanation of his acquittal. In my long experience as an advocate and a Judge, there was one thread of consistency. Assuming he is not a thug with an actual or presumed history of criminality, or the central allegation is of violence against a woman whose account is credible, a young man is significantly less likely to be convicted by female jurors than by males. This phenomenon may arise because women, especially mothers, have an acute understanding of how young men and boys get into trouble, perhaps born of their experiences with their own sons. They are also very quick to defend their sons of allegations of miscreances. Men tend to be much less patient and tolerant of young men, perhaps knowing what they did as young men themselves.

In an interview with CNN after the trial, one woman juror spoke of the evidence given at the trial by a young female friend of the victim, called by the prosecution, as being unhelpful and unconvincing, for which read untrue. My second piece of relevant experience, then, is that women are infinitely more judgmental of other women than men. Women can tell that another woman is lying much more perceptively than men who tend to be protective and understanding, even forgiving.

Taking all this into account, it is certainly worth considering that the combination of these two peculiarly female factors is just as likely to have affected the verdict as racism.

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