Possible Change to Florida Law Following the Zimmerman Verdict?

Many people think the Zimmerman verdict was a just application of Florida law, i.e., that there was a reasonable possibility that Zimmerman “reasonably believe[d] that such force [was] necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself.” Many others think the verdict was an unjust application of that law. Many others aren’t sure, because they didn’t watch all the evidence.

But even if one thinks the result was unjust, it’s hard to see what can feasibly be done about unjust applications of self-defense law in the future. For instance, Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, which was much talked about early in the process, didn’t materially affect the outcome here; even in non-stand-your-ground states, the duty to retreat before using deadly force generally arises only when there’s an imminent threat of death or great bodily harm but one can avoid that threat by retreating with complete safety. Whatever you think of Stand Your Ground laws, they wouldn’t affect cases such as this one. The question in this case came down to how the jurors evaluated the facts, and it’s very hard to control that through changed legal rules (or at least changed rules that will be acceptable to the public — to given an extreme example, one could prevent unjust acquittals on self-defense grounds by abolishing the self-defense defense, but for good reason few people would go for that).

But there is one change in the law that I think would be sound, that could be enacted following the verdict, and that would make it more likely (I think) that such verdicts in the future would be just and would be perceived as just: bring Florida into line with almost all other states by providing 12-person juries in serious felony cases. As I noted in this post, while many states allow six-person juries in misdemeanor cases (or in relatively less serious felony cases), very few allow them for very serious felonies, such as murder, for which Zimmerman is being tried. Only Connecticut and Florida provide for a six-person jury for very serious but noncapital felonies, and only Florida provides for a six-person jury when the offenses is punishable by life imprisonment (with or without parole); Utah apparently provides for an eight-person jury.

Naturally, having a six-person jury rather than a twelve-person jury makes it more likely that the jury will have an unusual demographic mix, such as the Zimmerman jury, which is all female and apparently has no blacks (it apparently consists of five white women and one Hispanic woman). And while such unusual demographic mixes are always possible, and verdicts handed down by such juries are obviously legally effective, it is probably better for the credibility of the legal system — and possibly for its accuracy — for such unusual mixes to be rarer. Using the traditional 12-person jury will likely better accomplish this than using a 6-person jury.

Of course, there are costs to having larger juries, including financial costs, as well as the various costs stemming from a possibly higher hung jury rate (though it is apparently unclear that twelve-member juries indeed hang more often than six-member ones). But 47 states are able to bear those costs; it thus seems hard to conclude that Florida, Connecticut, and Utah have some special problems that make them unable to go with the system that all the other states have.

The longstanding American model of the twelve-person jury in serious felony cases is not constitutionally mandated, according to the Supreme Court’s decision in Williams v. Florida (1970). But it seems to me a good idea, and perhaps the Zimmerman trial might be the occasion for a return to that idea among the few states that have departed from it.

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