But in 1976, Baxley reopened the case and eventually got a murder conviction for Chambliss, who died in prison. Many across the South believed that with the guilty verdict, Southern juries — once defiantly loath to convict whites for the murder of blacks — had begun a judicial trek toward fairness.
With the acquittal this weekend of George Zimmerman, who fatally shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, those feelings, especially among many blacks, were upended. A jury of six women — five whites and one described as a white Hispanic — found the neighborhood watch volunteer, who said he shot the unarmed Martin in self-defense, not guilty of second-degree murder and manslaughter. The jury deliberated more than 16 hours after a three-week trial in Sanford, Fla.
A Southern jury — when it comes to race and the perception that a black person has been wrongly accused or harmed — operates under the wide, whispering shadow of history. And there exists a roster of names and cases that has exploded onto the national scene and claimed headlines against this backdrop of race and geography: the Scottsboro Boys, Emmett Till, Isaac Woodward, Medgar Evers, the four girls killed in the Alabama bombing.
After the Zimmerman verdict, civil rights activists have clamored for charges of federal civil rights violations. President Obama referred to Martin’s death as “a tragedy.” On Monday, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. called the teenager’s death “unnecessary” and said the Justice Department would continue its investigation of the shooting.
The case, fairly or not, has reignited passions about the South and Southern juries when it comes to justice for blacks. It is a story line so often mentioned that it is now wedded to popular culture, in literature — the works of Eudora Welty, William Faulkner and Ralph Ellison — as well as in movies. In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman is convicted despite the defense waged by his heroic white attorney. FBI agents in “Mississippi Burning” seek justice for three voting- rights activists.
Baxley began working as a lawyer in Alabama at the height of the civil rights movement, when blacks were routinely tossed in jail for protesting. “When I started practicing,” Baxley says, “there were no women on juries. And very few blacks, if any.”
Baxley acknowledges, in light of the Zimmerman verdict, that Southern juries may have to constantly fight to overcome history and the perception that they cannot mete out justice when it comes to blacks who have been wronged. “It requires evolution,” he says of certain juries. “And evolution is slow. There are ingrained attitudes, and some of those are based on fear.”