Tuesday, June 25, 2013
Trials and Errors
Jury selection is strictly an emotional process. They're looking for people they can manipulate. Both sides are.
George Zimmerman will be convicted. I'm making this prediction based on inferences from one fact and 30 seconds of TV news coverage. Details follow.
The fact: The Zimmerman jury is all female. Women, for better or worse, are more easily persuaded by emotional arguments. Right now some of you (probably women) are thinking "Not aaallll women, you sexist bastard!" True, not all, but what follows is a statistical argument and the numbers are indifferent to your ideology. Besides, I doubt that there are any female mathematicians, engineers, physicists or other reputedly more systematic thinkers on that jury.
The TV coverage: The prosecutor is relatively young and relatively handsome. He stands erect, and speaks authoritatively while telling the jury the story of gun-toting would-be vigilante George Zimmerman, who set out to hunt poor, young, innocent Trayvon Martin.
Not with murder in his heart, perhaps, but with a vision of himself wielding the Sword of Justice against an imagined evildoer. That vision predisposed Zimmerman to violence.
According to the State's story, why else would Zimmerman have a gun, an object most women regard with emotions ranging from distaste to dread? Why else would Zimmerman have disregarded instructions to stay in his car? It's an easy story for these jurors to believe, because it fits the way most of them already think.
The defense attorney is older. He leans forward to address the jury like an aging uncle with advice to give. He opens with a lame joke, then tells the jury Zimmerman was defending himself against a vicious and unprovoked attack. He feared for his life, says the lawyer, justifying the use of lethal force. This is a technical argument that relies on evidence and legal reasoning, requiring the belief that young Martin was the aggressor. It takes substantial mental effort to process; the juror must want to be logical and unbiased.* The trouble is, most people think they're being logical and unbiased even when their judgement is the most skewed.
How do jurors decide guilt or innocence? The best theory we have tells us that these judgements are based on a "story model." That is, which side tells the most coherent story of the events? That, in turn, depends on both the storyteller and the listener. In this case, both the predispositions of the jurors and the superficial "cues of credibility" (see, e.g., this paper) are on the prosecutor's side.
But wait----a jury verdict has to be unanimous. Only one juror can hold out and possibly sway the other five! Truth and justice can prevail! Right. How much are you willing to bet?
What research since the 1960's has shown is that group decisions (including jury verdicts) are based on the "weight of opinion" held by group members before any discussion at all. An even split of opinion might result in a hung jury, but if four of the six Zimmerman jurors buy the prosecutor's story, social pressure will do the rest.
You might care what I believe. As is often the case, both sides have it partially right. Zimmerman acted stupidly, looking for trouble when there was no need, his head full of sheepdog fantasies. He's a sad, fat little man who wanted to be a hero, and whose idea of heroics derived from silly action movies. Yes, he was defending himself against a young, aggressive punk who might well have injured or killed him---but he put himself in that position. Was Martin justified in attacking Zimmerman? Absolutely not. On a strictly legal basis, as I understand the law, was Zimmerman justified in shooting Martin? Absolutely yes. Does any of that matter? Sadly, probably not.
George Zimmerman is screwed.
*For a short introduction to these issues, see this.