Eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable. Witnesses who all saw the same event can disagree on all kinds of details, including the color of the car being driven, the appearance and height of a suspect, or even the timing of events. But if eyewitnesses can often be contradictory, why would a court rule "earwitnesses," or people who have only heard a crime, admissible? Jurors who sat on the George Zimmerman trial recount how earwitnesses factored into the case on the new Oxygen series, The Jury Speaks.
Zimmerman stood accused of the murder of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old black man, who was shot and killed during a confrontation in Zimmerman's neighborhood. (Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges, according to The New York Times.) As his legal team was using self-defense as their attempt to explain Zimmerman's actions, the prosecution attempted to make the case that the shooting was an act of premeditated murder. To do this, they had to throw into doubt the defense's claim that Zimmerman was in fear for his life. According to the series, many of Zimmerman's neighbors claimed to have heard the altercation and claimed they heard a man screaming "help" for close to a minute before shots were fired. However, when the prosecution attempted to prove that Martin was the person calling for help, earwitness testimony differed.
Some of the earwitnesses claimed to have seen the altercation, as well as heard it. The Jury Speaks shows that one neighbor testified that he could see Martin on top of Zimmerman, punching him. Another earwitness testified that she was sure that the voice screaming for help was a boy's voice — Martin's. These contradictory accounts served to confuse the jury. "It's amazing how all those people heard, but they all heard somewhat different things," juror Christine Barry shared on the Oxygen series.
In addition to earwitnesses who claimed to have heard the events taking place in real time, the mothers of Martin and Zimmerman were each called to the stand in an attempt to identify a voice screaming for help that had been recorded on a 911 call placed by a neighbor. Both women testified that the screaming voice belonged to her own son.
With such contrasting testimonies, there's little the jury could determine from the evidence provided by the earwitnesses. The information did little to shed light on the confrontation, and instead created greater room for doubt regarding the potential murder charge. Zimmerman was ultimately acquitted in a result that stunned the nation and added momentum to the Black Lives Matter movement. In The Jury Speaks, none of the jurors mentioned the earwitness testimony when citing the evidence they considered during deliberation.
This insight into the Zimmerman trial provides further evidence that much like eyewitness testimony, earwitness testimony is not a foolproof way to convince a jury. ABC reported that voice analysis experts were called to testify regarding the identity of the screaming voice on the 911 call, and even their opinions varied. Some experts expressed disbelief that anyone would claim to be able to identify a voice with such a short clip.
Though eyewitnesses and earwitnesses still have the ability to provide key insight, the jury's recounting of the Zimmerman trial demonstrates that earwitness testimony can be conflicting, confusing, and arbitrary.