Why did Trayvon Martin's killer go free? 'The Jury Speaks' tries to explain.
The reverberations of the killing of black teenager Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in February 2012 are still being felt five years later. Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s controversial acquittal of second-degree murder sparked a national conversation about racial injustice and, along with numerous other shootings, helped inspire the Black Lives Matter movement.
Zimmerman’s case was at the center of Monday night’s installment of Oxygen’s four-night The Jury Speaks series, which featured interviews with five jurors from the case: Christine Barry, Maddy Rivera, Lauren Germain, David Ramirez, and Amy Trunalone (Ramirez and Germain were ultimately dismissed before deliberation). They also talked to Zimmerman’s attorneys Don West and Mark O’Mara, as well as witness Rachel Jeantel, to get their perspectives.
Here’s what we learned.
As with many high-profile cases, the Zimmerman jurors were screened to make sure they weren’t bringing in any preconceived knowledge or ideas about the case. Germain admitted that she hadn’t even heard of Zimmerman until she showed up for jury duty. But that wasn’t the only factor in choosing a jury.
“There was a clear racial aspect to the jury selection,” West said. “Rightfully or wrongfully, we were more suspicious, if you will, of African-American jurors because of the way the case was presented in the media.”
Florida’s legal system eschews a 12-person jury in favor of 10 members, including four blind alternates who are dismissed before the 6-juror deliberation. From a pool of 750 jurors, West’s style of selection ultimately resulted in eight white jurors and two Hispanic jurors, and a parallel ratio of eight women to two men.
“You have a young black man who’s been shot, but you have eight white jurors and two Hispanics,” Ramirez said. “That struck me as kind of funny.”
“Obviously, the goal is to find people who will favor you,” West said.
Rachel Jeantel’s unclear testimony
No one from the prosecution team was interviewed for the special, but other players indicate the prosecution’s strategy hinged on the testimony of Rachel Jeantel, a friend of Martin’s who was the last person he talked to on the phone before he was killed. On the stand, Jeantel recounted Martin telling her he was being followed. Thinking Zimmerman was a rapist, she urged her friend to get away. As a confused young person who recently lost her friend, Jeantel did not exactly give stirring testimony, and the defense fought her hard in cross-examination.
“I felt like I wasn’t a witness,” Jeantel said. “Mr. West made me feel like I was a suspect.”
As a result, the jurors’ reception of Jeantel’s testimony was muddled. Trunalone felt empathy for Jeantel’s plight, Barry felt the defense was too hard on her, and Germain said Jeantel didn’t seem credible because she “went back and forth in her answers.” In other words, Jeantel was not sufficient, in and of herself, to point the jurors to an easy conclusion.
The problem of ‘ear witnesses’
Since the fatal encounter between Zimmerman and Martin took place at night, there were few reliable eyewitnesses. Even the neighbors who spotted some of the fight from their windows could not provide definitive proof as to whether Martin really was attacking Zimmerman in a life-threatening way. The trial, therefore, focused more on “ear witnesses” — neighbors who had overheard the confrontation from far away, and audio tape of their 911 calls. One of the tapes even included someone screaming for help. Depending on who screamed, it could have mammoth implications for the case.
“If a victim, the one who ended up being shot, was screaming for help for a minute and then was still shot, that gives premeditation,” O’Mara said. “On the other hand, if it was George who was screaming, then obviously he was screaming out for help, didn’t get it, and then had to shoot out of self-defense.”
The source of the scream proved impossible to determine. The court summoned both Martin’s and Zimmerman’s mothers to see if they recognized the scream. Both of them said it was their son.
The curious case of the mismatched bullet holes
Zimmerman’s lawyers argued that their client only shot Martin in self-defense. Therefore, they had to show that Martin posed a threat to Zimmerman’s life. Some people nearby claimed to have seen the struggle, with one person on top of the other raining down blows, but accounts differed as to whether Martin or Zimmerman was on top.
One key piece of evidence came from the placement of bullet holes in Martin’s clothing. He was wearing a hoodie when he died, but the bullet hole in his hoodie was about three inches above the corresponding hole in his shirt. Specialists argued that this meant Zimmerman had shot Martin while the latter was leaning over him.
“When you saw where the bullet hole was and you heard from different professionals, logistically that had to be the case,” Trunalone said.
“They basically said that’s the reason why it was self-defense,” Rivera added.
Still not guilty
By all accounts, the final jury deliberation was passionate. At one point, Rivera threatened to quit, saying she was “done” and just wanted to get home to her husband and eight kids after three weeks away. But ultimately, the jurors said they dismissed their emotions and focused on the facts they had been presented. Even when Oxygen reunited Barry, Trunalone, and Germain to see if their judgment had changed (years after Zimmerman auctioned off the gun he used to kill Martin, agreed to participate in a celebrity boxing match that was ultimately canceled, and made headlines for multiple arrests), they all said not guilty, though they all admitted their personal distaste for Zimmerman.
All I go back to is the law,” Trunalone said. “That is what we have. We’re a democracy, and what we’ve got is the law. We’re to apply it blind to any other thing. At that moment, at that moment, did that person think their life was in jeopardy? That’s the way you have to answer the question.”