Jury Deliberations in Black and White

Jury Deliberations in Black and White

[OPINION] Writer Chris Wilder reflects on how race plays a role in the jury room---and why we shouldn't dodge our duty to serve

by Chris Wilder, November 4, 2013

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Jury Deliberations in Black and White

Most people of color in this country will tell you that race plays a part in everything we do, see, hear, eat, smell, live in and work around. And in the jury room—a place where fates are decided and lives are forever changed—that is still very much so the case.

Several years ago, I was on an eight-member jury in a civil trial in Philadelphia in which a Black woman from Ohio and her husband were suing Wyeth Pharmaceuticals claiming that a drug they manufacture for menopause symptoms gave her breast cancer. At seven weeks, my jury service was a little longer than the now-infamous George Zimmerman trial this summer, but we weren’t sequestered. The case was high-profile enough to be covered by the media as it moved along, but there was no TV coverage and perhaps only one or two small print stories about it daily.

At jury selection, they needed eight people and I was chosen from a group of 60—mainly because I was one of just two people there that didn’t know anyone that had breast cancer or had died of it.

After three days, they finally settled on eight of us: six Black, one white and one Latino. We were told to come back the following week for the start of the trial. When we returned and were sent into a room to wait for the trial to begin, there was a group of seven white people and one Asian in there presumably for another trial. Then a court officer came in and told us all to come with him. It turned out that in the days after they picked the eight of us, they picked the other group for the same trial.

We were grouped as one and it was determined that four Black people, including me, and three white and one Asian were the jurors and the others were alternates.

The proceedings began and they introduced us to the plaintiffs, a Black married couple in their 60s from Dayton, Ohio. The husband was an army veteran. We were shown pictures of their home and of their adult children. They were presented as a very nice family that seemingly had a nice life. The husband had even run for mayor of the town they lived in some years ago. They were very nice people and the defense made no attempt at sullying their image.

During the trial, every witness was an expert with flip charts and boring Powerpoint presentations that each took a day or more. There were researchers, an endocrinologist, the former head of surgery from a New York City hospital and so on.

By the end, I knew more about the causes, effects and treatment of breast cancer than anyone I know that’s not a doctor. We were hit over the head with fact after fact and diagram after diagram. Then the attorneys would cross examine the witnesses and that’s when we found out how much money the expert had gotten paid to create a report and testify and how many times they had testified previously.

Finally, after seven weeks the closing arguments were complete, the judge had given us the instructions and I thought it was an open and shut case. I thought we’d be out of there in 15 minutes. We got inside and took an initial vote to see where everyone stood and wouldn’t you know it, the Black people all voted in favor of the plaintiff while the white people and the Asian all voted in favor of the defense.

Really? I was shocked. It hadn’t occurred to me that this would be a racial thing but apparently it was…much like the Zimmerman case.

According to Juror B-37, when the Zimmerman jury got behind closed doors and took an initial vote, there were three for acquittal, two for manslaughter and just one for second-degree murder. Now that Juror B 29, identified only as “Maddy” and the only non-white juror, has spoken publicly in an interview with ABC’s Robin Roberts, we know that she was the one that wanted to find Zimmerman guilty of second-degree murder.

“My first vote was second degree murder,” Maddy said. “A lot of us had wanted to find something bad, something that we could connect to the law because all six of us — let’s not speak for all six of us. For myself, he’s guilty because the evidence shows he’s guilty.”

And that is how I felt after hearing all of the testimony at that trial in Philly. The evidence showed that Wyeth’s drug accelerated the growth of cancer cells.

Since we were split down the middle, we next outlined all of the facts that we had and determined which were in favor of the plaintiffs and which were in favor of the defense but even that proved to be troublesome, as everyone seemed to be dug in to their positions. I quickly realized that we were going to be in there for a long time. Since we weren’t sequestered, we were able to go home every day at 5 o’clock, but each morning when we returned, it was more of the same.

Of the jurors, there was a Black woman in her mid to late 20s who really didn’t want any part of arguing points with people. She was in favor of the plaintiff and didn’t have much else to say. There was also the gas man. He was a big Black guy in his 40s, who worked for Philadelphia Gas Works and looked more like a linebacker than someone who checked gas lines for leaks. While he was clearly in favor of the plaintiffs, he often would take a long time to make some point that didn’t quite make sense but for the most part he stayed quiet. Were we in public, his comments would have bordered on cringe-worthy.

There was the old man. He was a tall, skinny, White senior citizen who had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease but didn’t need to lug an oxygen tank around with him. He kept making points that would support both sides but didn’t want to vote in favor of either.

There was also an older, Italian woman from South Philly who kept talking about the mafia. “My granddaughter is African-American,” she said one day while showing me pictures of the biracial child. The father was in jail.

Often sitting in a corner and not paying attention was a big, burly, 21-year-old White kid who said that his mother was taking the same drug and didn’t have breast cancer, so “these people are full of sh*t.” He was mostly upset because as a garbage man for the city, he worked overtime every day but, while serving on the jury, he only received his base pay. He refused to discuss anything and would just play games on his phone. Several days into the deliberations, I threatened to let the judge know that his mother was taking the drug – information that he had not previously disclosed to the court – and he straightened up and joined the discussions. As much as he didn’t want to participate, he didn’t want to be kicked off of the jury either.

A day or so after that, the Vietnamese man, who was very soft-spoken but adamant about his position, got frustrated when during a particularly heated argument I told him that “I came here to do the right thing and we’re gonna do the right thing! I’m not LEAVING here without doing the right thing!”

At that point he picked up a table that was on the side of the room where we had coffee and donuts every day. He smashed it down on the floor and it broke apart. I looked up and he was coming after me holding one of the splintered legs like a baseball bat. The garbage man and the gas worker both bear-hugged him, the women ran out of the room crying and a court officer came rushing in to break it up, but the two biggest jurors already had it under control. Needless to say, a note to the judge got the Vietnamese dude removed from the jury.

Along the way, we managed to swing the Italian woman with the biracial grandchild to our side. She said that she had two sisters with breast cancer, so she could sympathize with the woman. I think her daughter’s relationship with her Black boyfriend had something to do with it as well.

When the alternate was bought in to replace the removed juror, he was also white and in his 30s. He initially was in favor of the drug company and even went so far as to ask about the husband, “What’s that shyster suing for?”

This was our sixth day of deliberations and just this new guy’s first. No one was enthusiastic about digging in at this point. With the Black people now joined by the Italian woman, the alternate was pounded over the head with fact after fact while that woman came at him with the emotional aspect. She talked about all that that woman had been through having a double mastectomy, the constant doctor visits and not knowing if and when the cancer would completely take over.

It took about ten minutes to swing the new juror. Which left just the garbage man and COPD siding with big pharmaceutical. Since neither of them really had the ability to argue points back and forth, they garbage man switched sides as well and we finally ruled in favor of the Ohio couple.

While we had facts on our side, it took much more than that to overcome what seemed to be the White jurors’ natural desire to rule against the Black people. It’s almost as if it was painful for them to see those Black people come into a large sum of money.

This is how it can go during jury deliberations and in the Zimmerman case, Maddy apparently was trying to hold it down by herself.

“I was the juror that was gonna give ’em the hung jury, oh, I was,” she told Robin Roberts. “I fought to the end. It’s hard for me to sleep, it’s hard for me to eat, because I feel that I was part, or I feel that I was forcefully included in Trayvon Martin’s death. And as I carry him on my back I’m hurting as much as Trayvon’s Martin’s mother, ’cause there’s no way that any mother should feel that pain.”

Ironically, it is only Maddy who has now revealed that her life has been "ruined" by the decision made by the jury to acquit George Zimmerman. 

After my service and my look inside the world of jury trials, I often wonder how bias and the connection —or lack thereof—the people involved can sway a jury. How many people are denied justice or reciprocity simply because the people hearing the case didn't look like them? Since then, I've certainly learned that jury duty is not a headache that takes us away from our jobs and families unexpectedly. It's our duty.

 

 
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