The acquittal of George Zimmerman, like the O.J. Simpson acquittal years ago, calls into question the validity of the jury system. Perhaps it's time to replace it with panels of legal experts or with a smart computer like Watson, the world champion of chess and Jeopardy.
The practice of asking peers, or jurors, to sit in judgment has been around since ancient Greece and Rome. This was to provide a check and balance against tyrants or government-sanctioned officials. It was devised to tap collective wisdom as opposed to allowing one individual to determine the fate of another. Unfortunately, juries fall short and cases and laws are more complex than ever.
This is why courts must educate juries and spend a great deal of time doing so. An excessive amount of time is spent picking and choosing jurors, to cull the bigoted or brain dead, from the pool of prospects. Then once the trial begins, too much time and money must be spent training the chosen jurors. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee of success, witness some of the comments made by two jurors in interviews following the Zimmerman acquittal. One stated that she acceded to the others because unanimity was required (which is not the case) and another that intention had to be established to convict Zimmerman, also inaccurate.
The wisdom and efficacy of the jury box in both criminal and civil cases should be re-evaluated, particularly in the United States where it is over-used.
"I agree the jury system is imperfect," said Heather Bird, a former journalist and now criminal defence lawyer licensed in the U.S. and Canada. "But it's a check and balance on the fact that the prosecutors have all the power. Then you have the judge, who is elevated but also part of the government. So you need the defence there to say to the government 'go ahead and prove it,' then you need a jury to decide whether that was accomplished."
The Grand Jury system is unique to the U.S. and highly questionable for several reasons. Grand Juries are held in secret, jurors hear only one side of the story, the prosecutor's, then must decide whether to indict, or to lay charges. There is a judge present but no press or public. Among New York's defence lawyers, there's a joke that "in New York you can indict a ham sandwich."
In Canada, there is no Grand Jury system and judges determine whether charges should be laid against individuals. Judges and prosecutors in Canada are also not politicized and are civil servants, not elected officials as is the case in many parts of the United States.
Juries don't determine whether someone will be charged in Canada, but a "preliminary hearing" is held before a professional judge to determine if a trial is needed. Reporters can be present but cannot report on the proceedings and the information is sealed so as not to prejudice the defendant's right to a trial should one occur.
In U.S. trials, juries are the norm. In state-level courts, the accused can choose a jury or judge, but federal offences require a jury trial unless the prosecution grants permission for a judge trial.
In Canada, the use of juries varies with the crime. Minor offences are tried before judges, and those charged with serious charges can choose jury or judge, but the government determines who will hear cases involving property, fraud or probation offences. And juries are mandatory when it comes to treason, threatens to officials, sedition, murder, war crimes, or bribery of a judge.
Another difference between the United States and other countries is that jurors can be interviewed after a trial by the press. They can talk about what transpired inside the jury room, blame one another and write books about it.
"In Canada, the Criminal Code does not allow jurors to disseminate what happens in the jury room," Bird explained. "I have problems with jurors being interviewed, but the argument in favour of allowing it is that it does introduce more transparency into the process."
Clearly, the best way to adjudicate would be to devise a system that eliminates poor judgment, ignorance, emotion, theatrics, media pressure, and questionable verdicts. Enlisting the efforts of a Watson-like mechanical genius to weigh the scales of justice is, theoretically, ideal. After all, computers fly the airplanes we use and run just about everything else in our lives.
Maybe it's time to eliminate human error in our justice system too.
<strong>Feb. 19, 2012</strong> -- Trayvon Martin, 17, and Tracy, his father, travel from Miami Gardens to Sanford, Fla., to visit the elder Martin's fiancee in her townhome at The Retreat at Twin Lakes. <em>Photo courtesy of <a href="http://www.globalgrind.com" target="_blank">globalgrind.com</a></em>
<strong>Feb. 26, 2012</strong> -- Trayvon Martin is walking to the home of his father's fiancee after purchasing items from a 7-Eleven store in Sanford. George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, spots Martin at approximately 7 p.m. and calls police. "We've had some break-ins in my neighborhood, and there's a real suspicious guy," Zimmerman tells police.
<strong>Feb. 26, 2012</strong> -- Roughly seven minutes after Zimmerman's call to police, authorities receive a 911 call from an individual reporting a fight. During the call, the dispatcher hears a gunshot in the background and sends police units to the location. Responding officers discover that Martin has been shot in the chest. The teen is unresponsive and pronounced dead at the scene. Police find no identification on Martin and label him a John Doe.
<strong>Feb. 26, 2012</strong> -- Questioned by police, Zimmerman informs them that Martin attacked him and he fired his gun in self-defense. Authorities confiscate Zimmerman's 9 mm semi-automatic pistol and take him to the Sanford Police Department for further questioning.
<strong>Feb. 27, 2012</strong> -- Following a lengthy interview, George Zimmerman is released from the police station at approximately 1 a.m. Hours later, Tracy Martin contacts police to report his son missing. Investigators soon connect the dots and inform the elder Martin of his son's death. After receiving treatment from a family doctor, Zimmerman meets with investigators and reenacts the events of the shooting at the crime scene.
<strong>March 8, 2012</strong> -- Tracy Martin holds a press conference, during which he criticizes the investigation into his son's slaying. "We feel justice hasn't been served," Martin tells reporters.
<strong>March 9, 2012</strong> -- Martin family attorney Benjamin Crump tells the Miami Herald he is filing a lawsuit for the release of public records in the case.
<strong>March 10, 2012</strong> -- Members of the New Black Panther Party, contending there has been a "miscarriage of justice," rally outside the Sanford Police Department.
<strong>March 12, 2012</strong> -- Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee holds a press conference, at which he claims that investigators were unable to arrest Zimmerman because he was protected by Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law, which allows residents to shoot someone if they reasonably believe they are being threatened. "There is no evidence to dispute Zimmerman's assertion that he shot Martin out of self-defense," Lee says. In response, Martin's parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, post a petition on the Change.org website calling for State Attorney Angela Corey to prosecute Zimmerman. The petition quickly garners support from multiple celebrities and receives nearly 900,000 signatures the first week.
<strong>March 13, 2012</strong> -- In a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, the NAACP expresses doubt in the Sanford Police Department's ability to appropriately handle the investigation, asking the Department of Justice to review the case. "The NAACP has no confidence that, absent federal oversight, the Sanford Police Department will devote the necessary degree of care to its investigation," the letter says. Sanford police announce the completion of their investigation and turn the case over to the State Attorney's Office for Brevard and Seminole Counties. "Trayvon Martin and his family, interested persons, and the public-at-large are entitled to no less than a thorough, deliberate and just review of the information provided, along with any other evidence that may or may not be developed in the course of the review process," State Attorney Norm Wolfinger's office says in a statement.
<strong>March 14, 2012</strong> -- Mary Cutcher, a woman listed in police reports as a witness who heard Martin's shooting, <a href="http://www.wftv.com/news/news/witness-sanford-police-blew-us-teen-slaying/nLSqk/" target="_blank">tells WFTV.com that police took only a short statement from her</a> following the shooting. "[The police] blew us off, and I called back again and I said, 'I know this was not self-defense. There was no punching, no hitting going on at the time, no wrestling,'" says Cutcher.
<strong>March 15, 2012</strong> -- Sanford police issue a statement calling Mary Cutcher's TV interviews "inconsistent" with her sworn testimony. Meanwhile, Zimmerman's father, Robert, tells the Orlando Sentinel that his son has been unfairly portrayed as a racist.
<strong>March 16, 2012</strong> -- Sanford police release eight 911 recordings in the case. One of the recordings includes a voice in the background screaming, "Help, help!" The screams are followed by the sound of a gunshot.
<strong>March 19, 2012</strong> -- The Justice Department and the FBI announce they have opened an investigation into the shooting.
<strong>March 20, 2012</strong> -- State Attorney Norm Wolfinger announces that a Seminole County, Fla., grand jury will review the circumstances of Martin's death.
<strong>March 21, 2012</strong> -- The Sanford City Commission votes "no confidence" in Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee and calls for his resignation.
<strong>March 22, 2012</strong> -- Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee holds a press conference and announces he is temporarily stepping down as police chief because his presence is a "distraction." State Attorney Norm Wolfinger recuses himself from the case and Florida Gov. Rick Scott announces that another state attorney, Jacksonville-based Angela Corey, will be replacing Wolfinger as special prosecutor in the investigation. Meanwhile, Rev. Al Sharpton, Martin Luther King III and other civil rights leaders and politicians hold a justice rally at Sanford's Fort Mellon Park. They demand an arrest in Martin's shooting. An estimated 10,000 people attend the event.
<strong>March 23, 2012</strong> -- President Barack Obama tells reporters that the nation needs to do some "soul-searching to figure out how something like this happens." He adds, "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon."
<strong>March 24, 2012</strong> -- Members of the New Black Panther Party offer a $10,000 reward for the "capture" of Zimmerman.
<strong>March 25, 2012</strong> -- Rev. Jesse Jackson speaks in Eatonville and encourages revisions to Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law. "If it's a moment, we go home. If it's a movement, we go to war," says Jackson.
<strong>March 26, 2012</strong> -- Police release new details of the investigation, saying Zimmerman told them Martin punched him and slammed his head into the sidewalk several times. Acting Police Chief Darren Scott takes over as chief of the Sanford Police Department. Thousands of people gather in Sanford to mark one month since Martin was killed.
<strong>March 29, 2012</strong> -- Zimmerman's brother, Robert Zimmerman Jr., tells CNN that medical records will prove his brother was attacked and his nose was broken.
<strong>April 3, 2012</strong> -- Florida State Sen. Chris Smith (D-Fort Lauderdale) announces the formation of a task force to review the state's "Stand Your Ground" law.
<strong>April 8, 2012</strong> -- George Zimmerman launches the website "The Real George Zimmerman" to raise money for his defense.
<strong>April 9, 2012</strong> -- State Attorney Angela Corey announces her decision not to use a grand jury in the Martin investigation. The move eliminates the possibility of a first-degree murder charge.
<strong>April 10, 2012</strong> -- Zimmerman's attorneys, Hal Uhrig (right) and Craig Sonner, announce that they will no longer be representing him.
<strong>April 11, 2012</strong> - State Attorney Angela Corey announces the charging of George Zimmerman with second-degree murder. Zimmerman turns himself in to police and is booked into the Seminole County Jail. Mark O'Mara announces his role as Zimmerman's new attorney.
<strong>April 23, 2012</strong> -- George Zimmerman's new lawyer, Mark O'Mara, enters a not-guilty plea on his client's behalf. Zimmerman is released from jail on a $150,000 bond. Per the conditions of his release, Zimmerman is required to wear a GPS monitoring device.
<strong>April 24, 2012</strong> -- George Zimmerman shuts down his website. According to his attorney, the site raised $200,000.
<strong>April 27, 2012</strong> -- Mark O'Mara launches the website GZLegalCase.com as the official site for Zimmerman's legal case.
<strong>May 8, 2012</strong> -- At Zimmerman's arraignment, Seminole County Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester Jr. accepts his not-guilty plea.
<strong>May 17, 2012</strong> -- Prosecutors release police reports, witness statements, surveillance videos and other evidence in the case.
<strong>June 1, 2012</strong> -- Judge Lester revokes Zimmerman's bond, stating that his ruling is based on concerns that Zimmerman and his wife did not fully disclose their finances at the bond hearing.
<strong>June 3, 2012</strong> -- Zimmerman is returned to jail.
<strong>June 12, 2012</strong> -- George Zimmerman's wife, Shellie, is arrested on one count of perjury.
<strong>June 20, 2012</strong> -- The Sanford city manager fires Bill Lee from the police force.
<strong>June 21, 2012</strong> -- George Zimmerman's legal team releases discovery evidence on their client's website.
<strong>June 29, 2012</strong> -- Zimmerman's second bond hearing is held. The judge does not immediately issue a ruling.
<strong>July 5, 2012</strong> -- Judge Lester grants Zimmerman a higher bond of $1 million.
<strong>July 6, 2012</strong> -- Zimmerman is again released from jail.
<strong>July 19, 2012</strong> -- George Zimmerman relaunches his personal website.
<strong>July 27, 2012</strong> -- George Zimmerman's wife pleads not guilty to perjury.
<strong>Aug. 29, 2012</strong> -- An appeals court grants a request by George Zimmerman's defense team to dismiss Judge Lester from the case.
<strong>Aug. 30, 2012</strong> -- Circuit Judge Debra S. Nelson is assigned the case.
<strong>Oct. 19, 2012</strong> -- Judge Nelson grants a defense motion requesting access to Trayvon Martin's school records and social media posts. The state is also granted access to Zimmerman's medical records.
<strong>Nov. 14, 2012</strong> -- Gov. Scott's "Stand Your Ground" task force concludes its final meeting and recommends no sweeping changes to the law.
<strong>Nov. 20, 2012</strong> -- Former Casey Anthony attorney Jose Baez announces that he is representing Sanford police Detective Chris Serino, the lead investigator in the shooting.
<strong>Dec. 3, 2012</strong> -- A new photo is released showing George Zimmerman with a bloody, broken nose on the night of the shooting.
<strong>Feb. 5, 2013</strong> -- On this day, Trayvon Martin would have turned 18.
<strong>Feb. 26, 2013</strong> -- Martin's parents hold a rally in his memory to mark the one-year anniversary of his death.
<strong>March 26, 2013</strong> -- Zimmerman's defense team releases its witness list of 134 people, including Sanford police officers and 56 unnamed witnesses.
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