Maddy Rivera was shocked when she was selected for the jury of the George Zimmerman trial. She had only lived in Florida for four months when she was called for jury duty, and she had recently given birth to a little girl. When she was chosen, Rivera resigned herself to doing her civic duty. What she didn't expect, however, was the pressure she would face as the jury's only non-white member in a racially-charged case.
"I just, I didn’t know that jury selection goes by color. So again, I was so naive," Rivera tells Bustle at an event for The Jury Speaks, a new series on Oxygen, which presents the personal stories and opinions of the jurors who sat on the cases of O.J. Simpson, Michael Jackson, George Zimmerman, and Robert Durst. Viewers can watch The Jury Speaks: George Zimmerman on Monday, July 24 at 9 p.m. ET to hear more from the jury members on that trial. In 2013, The New York Times reported that George Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges in the shooting death of black teen, Trayvon Martin.
In the July 24 episode, which focuses on the Zimmerman trial, Rivera, who identifies herself to Bustle as "Hispanic," expresses her ignorance of the racial dynamics of the case. She echoes that sentiment to me, saying, "My thing was, well it’s 12 of us and everybody’s white and I’m just minority, cause that’s what I kept hearing, 'you’re just a minority'," Rivera says. "So then I had to Google what minority meant, like what’s going on here?"
Yet race did play a significant factor in the jury selection process, according to the episode. Don West, Zimmerman's defense attorney, shares in The Jury Speaks that "there was a clear racial aspect to jury selection. Rightfully or wrongfully, I think we were more suspicious, if you will, suspicious, about African American jurors because of the way the case was presented in the media." No black jurors sat on the Zimmerman case.
Since Rivera and the other jurors were sequestered during the trial, she claims she had no knowledge of the heated national debates surrounding the case, in which Zimmerman stood accused of murdering a 17-year-old unarmed black man. The trial, and Zimmerman's subsequent acquittal, sparked protests across the country and provided the impetus for the Black Lives Matter movement. Yet Rivera, unable to work, watch television, read the news, or have prolonged contact with her family, was unaware of the controversy surrounding the case until it was over.
"I didn’t see anything until the deliberation was done, and we said he was not guilty," she says. "And when we came out was when you see the chaos and everybody screaming, and I was still in shock, you know? Why was everybody so upset?"
As the only person of color on the jury, Rivera says she's faced criticism regarding the verdict. The former juror claims that, following the trial, she was accused of taking the "white side." But for Rivera, the real problem lay with the law, not with the jury. "That’s one of the most hurtful things to come to this jury and have to deal with when I came out, for people to say that I was racist, you know, or that I took the white side or that I took the black side. I’m like what side are you talking about?" Rivera asks. "Because in reality, when you are going against the law, you can’t say no, I’m not going to follow the law. They give you this long list and that’s what you follow, and that’s what I did."
Rivera takes issue not with the racial make-up of the jury, but with the way the law worked to protect Zimmerman, in her opinion, rather than seek justice for Trayvon Martin. "You know, he got away with murder," Rivera says. "And in this world, it’s crazy to say that you can kill somebody and have a reason to kill them. 'Cause as long as, what was told to me, as long as he felt like he was threatened, he was able to use his gun cause he was licensed to carry, and he was licensed to take it wherever he wanted, which, I believe they shouldn’t do that."
Rivera is referring to Florida's "stand your ground" law, which allows for the use of deadly force to be justified if the defendant felt threatened for their life. Consideration of this law was included in the jury's instructions during the Zimmerman trial. At the beginning of July 2017, Reuters reported that a Florida state court judge ruled this law unconstitutional, signaling that there might soon be changes regarding the parameters of "stand your ground." Yet these changes come too late to reverse the fate of Trayvon Martin, or to alter the Zimmerman verdict.
The process of jury sequestration was especially difficult for Rivera, who, as a mother of eight and the only non-white juror, often felt alienated from the other members. In The Jury Speaks, Rivera shares how she used to receive criticism from other jurors regarding her habit of saving food from the meals provided to the jury to give to her family. And when the time came to deliberate, Rivera feels that stronger personalities dominated the room.
"I just regret not able to speak my mind more. I was really quiet, and I allowed a lot of people to speak for me, and that was the most hurtful, because by me not saying what I really felt and how I felt, everybody labeled me to be who they thought I was," Rivera said, growing visibly emotional.
Yet, Rivera stands by her claim that it was the law, and not race, that influenced her decision to acquit Zimmerman. "So I hope that The Jury Speaks gives me an open door policy to let everybody know, whoever wants to speak to me, that I’m a human, and everybody in this world makes mistakes, but that mistake wasn’t mine," Rivera says. "That mistake was already written. We gotta follow the law."
Watch The Jury Speaks: George Zimmerman on Monday, July 24 at 9 p.m. ET.