What Florida v. Zimmerman Teaches Us About the Justice System

I remember the day the jury returned the verdict acquitting O.J. Simpson.

I was a senior in high school (yes, that dates me) and our school cancelled class to gather us in Gills Hall and watch the foreman read the jury’s verdict live. 

I believe it was an attempt to teach us something about the judicial branch and the role of juries in society. Whatever the intent, I remember the shock and surprise we all felt. 

How could that jury not have seen the defendant’s guilt?  Did the defendant’s celebrity status so affect the trial that justice for the victims was not possible?

I felt the same kind of sadness this week, but I am no longer surprised by the outcome. Juries are unpredictable because people are unpredictable. Asking a group of strangers to agree on an outcome is inherently a difficult process. But our justice system also requires an unyielding faith in trial by jury.  It is a constitutional right, and the jury is the conscience of the community.

No one, except the jurors, can appreciate how difficult it is to reach the right conclusion in every case – that justice will be done.

My law practice regularly puts me in front of juries. I practice civil law where defendants are found negligent (not “guilty”). I stand up on behalf of families and individuals who have suffered unnecessary physical pain, loss, medical expenses, and often lost a loved one because of medical neglect.

The family in a medical case may know in their heart of hearts – just as Mr. Martin’s family knew in Florida –  that their lives will never be the same as a result of what happened. That one act, one moment, changed everything forever.

And I have to tell these families, that trial is always a risk.

There is no such thing as a slam dunk case. Even if 100% of the evidence supports our claim that someone was injured and caused pain because of medical neglect – it is possible a jury will see the evidence a different way.

For example:

– It is possible the jury decide the plaintiff failed to meet her burden of proof.

– Its possible the jury will hear the law and still believe it to be something else.

– It is possible the jury will connect with defendant, rather than the plaintiff, and despite the overwhelming evidence decide to rule in their favor.

You may read these statements and think they are made up or hypothetical.

They are not. They are the exact reason I have seen well-meaning juries rule against plaintiffs in injury cases. And so when I hear about Florida v. Zimmerman, I am not surprised. I am sad, just as I am sad for my clients who have suffered such a great deal and feel the system has failed them.

The justice system is run by individuals and our juries are comprised of people – people who see things differently than we might, and as such, it remains a wonderful, unpredictable and heartbreaking system. And so I advise my clients that trial is a risk. Always a risk. And I continue mourn and celebrate our system of justice at the same time.

Lauren Ellerman
Lauren Ellerman

In 2011, Lauren Ellerman was named "Young Lawyer of the Year" by the Roanoke Bar Association for her work in the community. To speak with Lauren about your personal injury case, contact her at lellerman@frithlawfirm.com.