Chuck Hobbs’ Hump Day Hot Topics
(On Trayvon, Race and Race Relations in America)
Of all of the systemic issues surrounding last week’s George Zimmerman case, as a lawyer, two in particular stand out to me as we move forward to determine “what’s next” for the millions of Americans who understand what the Zimmerman jury decided, but still remain at a loss as to how they arrived at their decision.
First, Florida’s Standard Jury Instructions can be a nightmare for some lawyers to understand therefore I know that they can be particularly difficult for lay persons to understand, too.
Indeed, there have been times that I have won trials in criminal cases by using the jury instructions to confound an unsuspecting jury—not that such is always the case but there are times when I’ve been left with no alternative in providing a zealous defense.
Anyway, the instructions not only contain long, pedantic paragraphs on the law, but when a judge breezes through them as quickly as Zimmerman Judge Debra Nelson did last week, I could imagine that the jurors went back and collectively asked “What the Heck?”
This was all but confirmed both by the request for an additional instruction on manslaughter as the deliberations approached the 15th hour as well as this week when juror B37 confirmed as much during an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper in which she stated that at the time of their question, the jury was split in half, with three wanting to acquit, two fixed on manslaughter and a third wanting second degree murder. The question, then, is if three jurors were at that stage willing to convict George Zimmerman of “something,” how, then, did they acquit a few short hours later?
The simple answer, again, is the jury instructions. The instructions tell the jury that a decision must be “unanimous,” but they do not tell the jury that they can agree to disagree. Meaning, many cases end in a mistrial or hung jury when all six or 12 individuals cannot come to a consensus but the jury only knows that if one party says it in closing arguments. The problem in the Zimmerman case, though, is that the instructions didn’t provide as much and neither the prosecution nor the defense mentioned as much in their closing arguments.
Prosecutors rarely if ever remind jurors of their right to disagree because typically, most prosecutors are convinced that they have met their burden of proof and to say that a jury can “hang” would be to concede weakness.
Defense lawyers like I, though, often touch upon this point during closing arguments in cases in which the vibe emanating back from the jury is one in which some jurors are not feeling my client but one or more, maybe by nodding their heads, taking furious notes or smiling as I make points, are somewhat persuaded to my position. In those instances, I fix my gaze upon the sympathetic jurors and remind them to “stand their ground” (no pun intended) back in the jury room and to not be moved if they are not convinced of my client’s guilt. In the two most high profile cases that I have handled, the Gambling trial of former Florida State University quarterback Adrian McPherson and the two Kappa Hazing trials, this maneuver worked to deliver three hung juries which later forced prosecutors to concede to favorable plea offers.
As such, while I believe that the prosecutors in this case had to know that they had struck an iceberg and were sinking fast, their years of experience worked against them as they had no knowledge or presence of mind to seek a life raft in the form of a hung jury.
The second issue that frightens me is evidence that prosecutors were withholding evidence from the defense. Separating apples from oranges, while I wanted George Zimmerman to be held accountable for his crimes, I firmly believe that the prosecutor has an obligation to fight in a fair manner. One of my dearest mentors, former Florida State University and American Bar Association President Sandy D’Alemberte—a legend in Florida political and legal circles—warned last year that Prosecutor Angela Corey had a horrific history of hiding the ball by withholding evidence and in attacking those who spoke out against her. It seems as if D’Alemberte’s fears may have been well founded, but oddly, Corey will not face any discipline for her acts based upon a quirk in Florida law that prevents prosecutors from being disciplined until they are out of office. Still, the negative publicity from this almost assures that Corey will face opposition during the next election cycle.
One would have to have his or her head placed squarely in the sand to not recognize that the Zimmerman verdict, much like the OJ Simpson case in the mid-90’s, has opened old wounds regarding the racial divide in America.
The one aspect that I find the most curious coming from my more conservative friends, most of whom are white males, is the idea that racial strife is either the figment of the black imagination or a tool of a certain group of liberal leaders (President Barack Obama, Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and NAACP President Ben Jealous) to lace their own pockets and to divide the America that they supposedly hate into a race war.
While I detest professional poverty pimps, too, I still recognize that racism is alive and well and the histrionics from the right would be laughable if not so deadly serious, please consider the following:
*President Obama was not and is not Superman and he is incapable of wiping away four centuries worth of racial strife in two short presidential terms. Those who suggest that his election should have righted all of the racial wrongs during our history are being intellectually dishonest.
*Some on the right have called upon President Obama to seek calm and to deliver a speech on racial tolerance. Speeches—like my columns—only matter if folks will listen with open ears and hearts. No, the more effective efforts would be to have small town hall meetings, clusters, and social media discussions where folks give their raw feelings but with respect.
*Instead of listening to rhetoric from pundits, including me, take some time out to visit your local criminal courts. Call your local District or State’s Attorney and ask to meet and look at charts regarding prosecutions based upon crime and race. They have the stats, trust me…
*When or if you receive the stats, ask said DA or SA why prosecutions and plea offers may differ according to race. Don’t just take the “that’s not true” at face value, press the issue and see whether you will get honest answers as to why Brock who is white and from patrician Golden Eagle in Tallahassee who is 16 and receives drug court diversion for possession of cocaine while Bakari who is black and from the housing projects gets offered 6 months in the county jail for the same thing, even if their criminal histories are similar. I promise you that the results are telling and convincing.
*For my white brothers and sisters who play the “race denial card,” you know, the one’s who state that blacks constantly make everything about race when it is not, write down times in which you believe race does matter? Specifically, I ask you to either write, email, in-box, text me or ask yourselves whether in the past 10 years, there has been any national or international issue where race was a major factor. If you say “no,” then you are in dire need of some intensive remedial work in Hobbs’ blogs and columns to see when, where and how.
*For my black brothers and sisters who play the race card like the Big Joker cutting spades, write down times in which race does or did not matter. As such a spades player, I will start by saying that I believe that black men who abandon their children are cowards and that such has nothing to do with the white man at present, but it is a lack of personal commitment to nurture what you helped bring to Earth. Now, if you are black and don’t see any issues where white racism is not involved, then you, too, need to go through my archives and read my future columns ASAP.
When most black men were boys, our fathers or father figures had “the talk,” the one in which you are reminded how to act in public or suffer arrest or being killed. To me, it seems that the “talk” is falling upon deaf ears and in many instances, simply is not happening these days.
Yesterday, while walking to the Leon County Courthouse I saw three high school aged black boys walking downtown with their shirts off talking loudly. Now, as a former athlete, I sensed that the trio was winding up a long distance run for conditioning in prep for the upcoming football season because when were younger, we did the same thing.
But being young, athletic, sweaty and loud black boys, I wondered whether someone else might have concluded that they were menaces to society? Or concluded that they were sweaty from running from burglarizing one of the expensive condos downtown or having stolen a purse?
You see, suspicions based upon biases can be suspect. I have represented young whites from wealthy two parent homes who have broken into more homes, smoked more weed, ingested more cocaine and imbibed more alcohol than any average 16 year old should. I have also mentored young black and Latino males from single parent or so-called broken homes who are honor students and are mulling offers from the top colleges and universities in the United States.
I point this out because whether Attorney General Eric Holder’s office presses civil rights charges against George Zimmerman or not, and while I laud the Obama administration for opening up an investigation I must state that the likelihood is low due to the high burden of proving that Zimmerman intended to kill Trayvon Martin BECAUSE he was black—which is a tough row to hoe. Still, I appreciated Mr. Holder’s remarks at the NAACP convention yesterday where he discussed being racially profiled and pulled/harassed by cops when he was a Federal Prosecutor no less. One of my other idols, the late Attorney Johnnie Cochran, often discussed a similar event happening where he was pulled over in his Rolls-Royce, forced to sit curb side by an LA police officer who did not believe that Cochran, who had taken a job as the 3rd ranking member of the LA District Attorney’s Office in the early 80’s after a lucrative private practice career, was in fact who he said he was. I raise these points and often highlight my own incidents of being profiled despite being a lawyer to remind my friends that profiling is not in our heads—it is real, it is wrong and it can be dangerous in the wrong instances.
THE TALK AMONG WHITES
Having never been white, I don’t know what white fathers or father figures teach their sons about race and race relations. I would love to know and beseech anyone who is willing to provide feedback to do so.
I often wonder whether white dads:
*Blame blacks for all of the problems as far as tense race relations are concerned;
*Tell their kids that racism is a relic of the past;
*Tell their kids that blacks are lazy and dependent upon government handouts and special privileges unlike whites who all work hard for what they have received;
*Tell their kids that blacks are more likely to use drugs than other races and are predisposed to crime;
*Tell their kids that blacks are athletically gifted but intellectually inferior to whites, Asians and Latinos;
*Tell their daughters that black boys are sexual predators and that they would disown said daughter if she brings a black boy home
Do these discussions happen in white homes? If they don’t happen, how do some whites, then, draw such conclusions?
I thank those who will respond to my heart felt questions in advance.