As the furor over George Zimmerman’s acquittal dies down a little, perhaps it’s time to reflect on the lessons of his trial.
This tragic case affords a valuable learning opportunity to citizens interested in thinking about America, its legal system, and its progress – and lack of progress – toward the ideal of equal justice under law.
Sadly, many Americans seem entirely uninterested in viewing this case as a learning experience. Led by the usual suspects – media personalities and personalities who live to exploit the media – millions made up their minds instantly.
Rather than confusing themselves with facts, many white, older and conservative Americans assumed that Trayvon Martin certainly did something which justified his shooting. Similarly, many young, black, and liberal Americans insisted that Trayvon was an innocent lad, gunned down by a racist wannabe cop.
The truth almost certainly wasn’t that simple. The truth seldom is.
In this case, as so often in cases involving violence and death, we don’t really know the truth. There were no eyewitnesses. Forensic evidence was inconclusive.
The only living witness is George Zimmerman. Factoring in self-interest, the adrenalin rush of the actual event, hours of trial preparation with his legal team, and those tricks our memories play as we try to make sense of the past – his version of what happened would almost certainly be unreliable.
All of which means that the events at the heart of this case will never be known. We’ll all have to get used to that.
As for the millions who are absolutely sure they know what happened, they are – quite simply – wrong.
But I wouldn’t suggest telling them that.
While the ultimate truth in this case cannot be known, there are many things we can learn – or relearn – from the Zimmerman trial.
The first is that our criminal justice system is not designed to do justice to victims of crime. Zimmerman was acquitted largely because, for better or for worse, our ancient legal tradition – rooted in the English common law – is designed to avoid convicting the innocent, even at the risk of letting the guilty walk free.
Consider these factors:
We allow anyone accused of a serious crime to request a jury trial.
We insist that he be represented by competent counsel – from the moment he is taken into custody.
We do not require him to testify – and forbid the prosecution to comment upon his silence.
We presume his innocence until the prosecution proves him guilty.
Most important, we require that the jury – or the judge, in a non-jury trial – find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. A jury or judge might firmly believe a defendant is guilty – but unless they can eliminate doubt, they must acquit him.
In other words, our system of criminal justice is, indeed, extremely biased – in favor of the accused.
A fact for which we should all be extremely grateful.
Necessarily, this built-in bias makes criminal prosecution a highly ineffective weapon for those seeking to justify or avenge someone they consider a victim of crime.
Those who demanded “justice for Trayvon” by bringing George Zimmerman to trial betrayed remarkable ignorance of how our system works.
Either that or – some might suspect – those familiar personalities who were loudest in demanding that Zimmerman be prosecuted did so in the full knowledge that an acquittal was almost inevitable. And that they could then use that acquittal as “proof” of injustice and lingering racism in America.
As if anyone required proof.
Certainly, few Americans would deny that some police departments – and some individual officers – betray racial bias in their manner of enforcing the laws. The same is true of some prosecutors’ offices.
Criminal statutes sometimes impose higher penalties for crimes typically committed in minority communities. Until the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, for example, there was a radical disparity between sentences for powder and crack cocaine.
Even today, an absurd proportion of black men are imprisoned or have spent time in prison.
And, in America, a defendant’s “right to counsel” still depends largely upon what he can afford.
All these are things we must work to change – but none had much to do with the Zimmerman case.
That said, the Zimmerman jury – six women, five white, one Hispanic – certainly lacked diversity. Twelve jurors would have provided for a more representative panel.
Setting race aside for a moment, a stronger case can be made that Trayvon Martin might still be alive if Florida had stricter qualifications for carry-permits. Or if it didn’t have a “stand your ground” law.
Trayvon’s supporters could legitimately demand reform in these areas.
But, as a criminal case, the Zimmerman trial was over before it began. Under our legal system – without eyewitnesses – no jury could reasonably have convicted George Zimmerman “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
We are all safer because that is true.