With all eyes on Central Florida for the George Zimmerman trial and its aftermath, one question keeps surfacing: Why are juries made up of just six people?
Throughout most of the country, 12 jurors determine the guilt or innocence of suspects in felony trials.
But in Florida and a handful of other states, only six jurors are seated in the majority of felony cases — even in some of the most violent and serious crimes.
This element of Florida's criminal justice system was highlighted during Zimmerman's trial, and after his acquittal on second-degree murder charges in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin on Feb. 26, 2012.
When the all-female jury was chosen, critics pointed out the lack of diversity on the panel.
And now, in the wake of Zimmerman's acquittal, Rep. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando is calling for state leaders to change Florida's law so that in felony trials, juries must have 12 members.
"It's more of a jury of one's peers when you have more jurors," Bracy told the Orlando Sentinel. "I think that is better for the people of Florida and for our criminal justice system in general."
Small jury more efficient?
Legal experts and researchers back up Bracy's premise — that six-member juries are less diverse than 12-member panels, said Susan Rozelle, a law professor at Stetson University College of Law.
Defendants are constitutionally entitled to a fair cross-section of potential jurors, but that doesn't mean the people who are actually seated for the jury have to demonstrate that diversity, she said.
In Zimmerman's trial, all of the jurors were women — five of them white — and they ranged in age from 20s to 60s. Rozelle said even if the jury pool is ethnically diverse, a smaller panel lessens the likelihood of having other kinds of diversity.
Rozelle said if every juror on any panel has the same background, the same life experiences, and are the same demographic, they are likely going to view the facts the same. They may not see an alternative perspective because it simply didn't occur to them, and they have no one to point it out, she said.
In some cases, the law professor said, "everyone agrees what the facts are, but they disagree bitterly on what those facts mean," she said. "If the trial is about truth seeking, it helps to have all possible interpretations of those facts considered."
In the days since Zimmerman was acquitted, the Seminole County jurors who found him not guilty have faced sharp criticism from legal observers and others. Some have questioned why there were no African Americans on the jury, since there were several in the pool that was culled from several hundred down to 40 after a week of jury selection.
After one juror known only as B-37 spoke out on CNN earlier this week, saying race was not a consideration in deliberations, some critics said the homogeny of the panel led to a lack of empathy for the dead teenager.
Benjamin Crump, an attorney for Trayvon's parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, said it more pointedly:
"[Juror B37] never, ever saw Sybrina Fulton's child, Trayvon, as her child," Crump told CNN's Anderson Cooper. "She never saw that that could have been her child."
In addition to added diversity and range of experience, some experts say 12-member juries are more likely to deadlock, or "hang," than smaller panels.
But researchers say further studies need to be conducted to determine other differences between six and 12-member juries.
"The jury is really out on if it is more efficient or not," to have a smaller panel, said Mark Summers, a law professor at Barry University and former federal prosecutor and defense attorney.
Summers noted that jurors only have to come back with a simple guilty or not guilty verdict. They do not need to explain why or how they reached that conclusion.
And that poses a significant question, he says. Without knowing why a jury made the decision it did, "how do you say that your trial was unfair based on the fact you had a six-person jury?"
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Most states have 12-member juries
The concept of 12-member juries dates back hundreds of years to England, and most states continue to seat that number in felony trials.
But some states began seating smaller juries out of the need for efficiency: seating half the number of jurors saves time and money.
Florida statute dictates that six people serve on juries in criminal trials, except in cases in which the death penalty is being sought. In those cases, a 12-member jury is seated. Connecticut, Indiana, and Louisiana have similar systems.
In 1970, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a six-member jury in Florida was sufficient under the Sixth Amendment. Eight years later, the Supreme Court ruled that a five-member jury was too small.
Today, 42 states require 12-member juries in felony cases.
In New Jersey and Pennsylvania parties can agree to fewer jurors, according to the National Center for State Courts. But not fewer than six.
In Arizona, juries consist of eight members unless it's a capital case or one that carries a sentence of 30 years or more.
In Utah, 12 jurors are required in capital cases, but eight are seated in other felonies.
Source: Sentinel researchCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun