By Jerry Waxman
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts……”
As You Like it by William Shakespeare
I’m often fascinated by the way life imitates art, or how art reflects life in many ways. Shakespeare’s brilliant discourse on the seven ages of man and our pre-ordained existence is quite apropos to what has been happening in Florida as relates to the George Zimmerman trial. Let’s think in terms of how this whole experience would make a good (or bad) play and let’s call it The Death of Trayvon Martin.
At rise the stage is dark. The sounds of a struggle can be heard and then a gunshot goes off. Lights go up to reveal George Zimmerman holding a gun and Trayvon Martin’s lifeless body on the ground. Blackout.
This is the exposition scene. What we hear are disembodied voices screaming for an investigation until two characters appear on stage. These two members of the press will introduce all players in the drama and all timelines through their conversations until the March rally. Blackout
The Rally. All speakers including Sanford’s Mayor and Congresswoman Corrine Brown who came to his defense when the crowd turned ugly.
The Town Hall meeting in Sanford the following Monday
Events leading up to Zimmerman being charged with Second Degree Murder.
Again the press providing internet chatter from both Zimmerman and Martin supporters, complete with wild conspiracy rumors, racism comments, character assassinations and speculations leading up to the trial.
Judges charges, deliberations and verdict.
Basically this is just an outline. We can certainly judiciously edit the script down to perhaps three or even two very long acts, just using some pertinent dialog and edited speeches during the trial phase. Jury deliberations are another matter because there’s no archive of them, but the most important parts of this drama are the jury selection process and the judge’s charging of the jury. Why do I feel this way? That’s simple; the trial was a manipulated process weighted in favor of the defendant. This is not peculiar to this case. It’s just the way the self defense laws are written, exacerbated by the fact that any hard evidence in this case is weak. There were no reliable eyewitnesses that could actually point fingers, nor was there any forensic evidence that showed exactly what transpired. Only three things are indisputable: George Zimmerman carried a gun and got out of his car when advised not to and Trayvon Martin was walking home in the rain so he put his hood up. Since the judge disallowed lots of background evidence on both individuals there’s no way of knowing how the jury would have reacted. The judge and the prosecution both were determined not to make this trial about race, which is almost impossible, yet the defense constantly fed into their fears in summation.
The special Prosecutor, Angela Corey, is also to blame for overcharging Zimmerman. Even though many feel this was a racially motivated incident there was no hard evidence that could prove it and she knew that. She had just sent Marissa Alexander to jail for 20 years for firing a warning shot to keep her husband from beating her. Many experienced Jacksonville lawyers said that the case should never have been prosecuted. Corey also overstepped her bounds by overcharging Zimmerman with Second degree murder. No wonder Rick Scott appointed her; she was the perfect person to weight the trial in favor of the defense. All the state wanted to do is get this mess out of the way and none of Trayvon’s supporters could criticize her for doing exactly what they wanted her to do.
Since this is supposed to be a play, let’s look at the reactions. During the trial itself there were several witnesses whose testimony was at best vague. Compare that with the movie and later a play, Rashomon, which tells the story of three different very clear eyewitness versions of a murder as well as the victim’s version told through a medium. None of the testimony matches up with any of the others and all different stories are told from personal perspective. Basically, everyone’s testimony is given in their own self interest regardless of what is true. The crucible of the courtroom is the ultimate drama, but only if the evidence is so overwhelming or revealing that the jury cannot ignore it. The real drama here is in the jury’s deliberations and how they arrived at their decision. The best example of this is Reginald Rose’s 12 Angry Men which was first presented as a live TV drama in 1954 on CBS’s Studio One. Henry Fonda was so impressed with it that it was rewritten as a screenplay in 1957 that starred Fonda. It was also rewritten as a play in 1964.
It’s a pretty accurate description of how jury dynamics can work. In the original versions race does play a part in the deliberations as the defendant was described as Puerto Rican and referred to as “Those People”. Upon seeing the movie again a few weeks ago my reaction to the eyewitness testimony by an elderly white man that the defendant threatened the victim was imagined more than real because in the mid fifties that conversation would not have been in English. This jury was all white men and all native born save one European immigrant. Later versions would include mixed races including Ossie Davis, Dorian Harewood, Edward James Olmos and others, However, I digress. The jury deliberations bring out the attitudes and prejudices of all the members and how they react to new revelations until the final verdict.
One pivotal point in the movie involves Juror #8 (Henry Fonda). Juror #8, who was the lone not guilty voter, is discussing the murder weapon and showing that knives of that kind could be purchased anywhere. The script doesn’t reflect that part of the judge’s instructions to the jury is “not to play detective” and stick to the facts as presented. I’ve served on juries and have been told by the judges not to visit the crime scene or look for my own clues, so that struck me as odd, but it is critical to the outcome of the verdict because several jurors were led to believe that only the defendant had a knife like that. I also agree that a juror should be a detective as much as possible if they are truly seeking justice. Through steady logic Juror #8 convinces several others that there is reasonable doubt (especially for first degree murder). Eventually, Juror #8 and the converted jurors start convincing the others that their preconceived biases are standing in the way of a just verdict. The result, of course was not guilty.
According to reports on the Zimmerman jury the original vote was three for acquittal, two for manslaughter and one for second degree murder. But let’s look at the jury. Five white women and one of mixed blood hardly consists of a proper jury of one’s peers but under Florida law anything less than a capital case allows it, and the defense took full advantage of that fact. Perhaps one African American male on that jury might have made a difference but the defense never would have gone along with it and it never looked like the prosecution even cared. In summation, Mark O’Mara asked the jury to use their common sense and NOT connect the dots and they bought into it. It seems proper that people with common sense would connect the dots in seeking a just verdict. It was a setup for his pursuit of selling them the fear of the other. Let’s call it discrimination rather than racism because in Zimmerman’s mind Martin did not look like he belonged in that neighborhood. Juror #B37 bought into the scenario as did two others. Juror #B29, the lone non white did not.
During deliberations she was persuaded finally to vote unanimous for acquittal for the most part based on the judge’s instructions. That’s an absolute cop out. She should have hung the jury. If her heart tells her he’s guilty then she should have stood by her guns (no pun intended) no matter what the judge said. It’s not a crime and she can’t be prosecuted for it and she could have thrown the whole mess back to the state, which is where the mess deserves to be. If Zimmerman had been convicted on any charge he would automatically appeal the decision anyway, but at least for the time being he would not be free to come and go. Had that happened perhaps a more representative jury would be deciding Zimmerman’s fate in the future.
We all watched this drama unfold. Some of us watched all five acts and some of us only watched parts of the trial on the periphery. All of us have opinions based on what we either know or believe. Was the verdict just? Was the trial fair? Do society’s discriminatory attitudes play a part in this? If you think things are wrong how do we go about fixing them? A.R. Gurney, in his brilliant satire, The Fourth Wall states that plays don’t change the world. Well, don’t you believe it. Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov, Shaw and a host of others have been changing the world, in tiny increments since the dawn of drama. Plays arouse our curiosity. They are not intended to provide answers; they are intended to raise questions. The answers have to come from us.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
The Tempest by William Shakespeare Act IV, Scene 1