Well, that was fast. On Monday morning, literary agent Sharlene Martin announced that she was shopping a book proposal from juror B37 in the trial of George Zimmerman, the former neighborhood watch captain who shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012, and her husband. But by the end of the day, Martin had dropped her representation of the couple. And after an interview with Anderson Cooper in which B37, who hadn’t revealed her name, and may have planned to publish under her jury designation, had decided to pull out of the project.
Martin’s initial pitch for the book was that it would help readers “understand the commitment it takes to serve and be sequestered on a jury in a highly publicized murder trial and how important, despite one’s personal viewpoints, it is to follow the letter of the law. It could open a whole new dialogue about laws that may need to be revised and revamped to suit a 21st century way of life. The reader will also learn why the jurors had no option but to find Zimmerman Not Guilty due to the manner in which he was charged and the content of the jury instructions.”
If you read Martin’s pitch with the greatest possible charity, it’s not necessarily a terrible project. As my colleagues have written extensively, the issue in Zimmerman’s trial isn’t necessarily that a bunch of jurors were looking a way to get him off, but that the laws they were required to uphold provide enormous leeway to acquit someone on self-defense grounds even in an altercation that he initiated, and that even though Zimmerman didn’t have a separate stand your ground hearing, Florida’s stand your ground law was included in the jury instructions as something they were required to consider. Getting angry at one jury doesn’t change the rules that another one, convened to weigh the circumstances in another killing of another black boy, will have to follow. And the more people understand that this verdict is the one the justice system in Florida was designed to produce, the closer we’ll be to an actual movement to change those laws. Illuminating that point for a mass audience is a useful and important project.
But as important as that project is, it’s not clear that juror B37, who told Cooper that she’d be fine with Zimmerman on her neighborhood watch because “Well, I think he’s learned his lesson,” would actually have addressed those issues in a meaningful way. Given that Martin’s pitch focused on sequestration, it seems like “laws that may need to be revised and revamped to suit a 21st century way of life” could well refer to B37 being denied her cell phone, rather than stand your ground. The prospect of a book in which a juror in Zimmerman’s trial complains about the difficulties of being sequestered when Trayvon Martin is dead might have been a useful and horrifying exercise in American solopsisim, but I’m not sure the moral awakening among the general public in reaction to it would have been worth whatever giant advance B37 was inevitably paid for it. As it is, I feel like we’ve gotten our lesson. As B37 said in her statement announcing that she wouldn’t be moving forward with the book project, “I realize it was necessary for our jury to be sequestered in order to protest our verdict from unfair outside influence, but that isolation shielded me from the depth of pain that exists among the general public over every aspect of this case.” Given that it should have been relatively obvious even before she was sequestered that there were a lot of strong feelings about Martin’s death, this is a good suggestion that B37 might not have been particularly well-equipped to write “respectful observation of the trial from my and my husband’s perspectives solely and it was to be an observation that our ‘system’ of justice can get so complicated that it creates a conflict with our ‘spirit’ of justice.”
Of course, the larger issue is when B37 decided she had the material for a book on her hands, and how it might have affected her approach to the trial and her influence on other jurors. As literary world guru Ron Hogan wrote in a series of Tweets “If Zimmerman had been found guilty, Juror B37’s book plans would almost certainly lead his attorneys to ask the verdict be set aide…There is also the question of what Florida prosecutors could do to Juror B37 if she violated sequestration or was taking notes during trial…There is the possibility of juror misconduct, if she planned anything to do with her book during trial…I’d like to know EXACTLY when Juror B37 settled upon the narrative hook that the “system” & the “spirit” of justice came into conflict.” That misconduct, if it existed, is shameful, but it can’t lead to a retrial of the case. Whatever motivations B37 consciously or unconsciously brought to deliberations and weighing of evidence have done the damage they were going to do, and there’s no way to rectify it.
But problems like this one aren’t unique to George Zimemrman’s trial. After the Casey Anthony murder trial in 2011, Florida Rep. Scott Randolph, a Democrat, proposed a law that would ban jurors from selling interviews or book projects based on their jury service for 270 days after their verdicts were announced, though they could, of course, speak publicly all they wanted as long as they didn’t accept fees. B37, in other words, could have gone on Anderson Cooper all she wanted, juicing the prospects of any future project, but she couldn’t have sold a book deal for nine months. The law would have made profiting from jury service during that period a third-degree felony, with punishments as significant as five years in jail and a $10,000 fine. It doesn’t appear to have passed — Randolph went on to become Orange County Tax Collector — and likely wouldn’t have survived First Amendment scrutiny in any case.
And while Randolph’s proposed law might have imposed a cooling-off period that might have closed the window for book projects by jurors in some cases, it seems likely that in the big, nationally-televised trials, any juror who wanted to sell a project would find a publishing house who believed there was still an audience out there. As long as there’s an appetite for insight into major national crime stories, be they important windows into racial prejudice and the legal world built by the National Rifle Association, or salacious opportunities to wallow in family and sexual crimes, jurors will still have a market for their stories. In juror B37’s case, at least, we seem to have found the limit to how shameless they’re willing to be in trying to profit themselves off of their civic service and the death of others, and a point at which reputable literary agents are no longer willing to represent them.