Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Zimmerman Verdict

It has been over a day now since George Zimmerman was acquitted of the killing of Trayvon Martin. That is almost too little time for us to gain perspective on an event in which someone was deliberately killed (as far as I can tell, no one disputes that), but decisions have to be made, and this one has been made.

Despite the phone call in progress between Martin and Rachel Jeantel at the moment of the shooting, only two people know what really happened that day, and one of them is dead. Thus the jury was deprived of a primary source of evidence in the case. This could not have been rectified after the fact; any information from Martin is gone, and one cannot expect information from Zimmerman to be objectively true.

Then there is the American criminal legal tradition that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt... a tradition that helps the accused individual counterbalance the presumably far greater resources available to the state in making a case. The law in question in this case lists some bases on which jurors may make conclusions, but not only were the six jurors not unanimous on whether to convict (three wanted to convict either of second-degree murder or of manslaughter), but at least one juror said that despite hours of examining evidence, jurors were unable to reach a unanimous conclusion of guilt or innocence. Thus the traditional presumption of innocence continued to prevail, and Zimmerman was acquitted. It could not have been otherwise.

This is not to say Zimmerman is blameless. He could have, and in my opinion should have, obeyed the police and stayed in his car rather than chasing Martin. We do not know Zimmerman's state of mind, or that a cop would have been less liable to give chase under the circumstances, but I've known a few cops, and all of them have voiced a real reluctance to pursue and shoot at a suspect when there are other ways to resolve the matter. Zimmerman, on the other hand, may well have decided how things would go down at the moment he exited the car. This is one of the major disadvantages of volunteer citizen patrols, or any other sort of vigilantism: the volunteers involved may not be capable of exercising good judgment when the confrontation turns potentially violent. Of course, that can happen with police as well, but at least police are trained in how to avoid needless violence.

So what is the best way to avoid such cases in the future? The answers are not easy, but for one thing, we have to instill in every individual volunteer carrying a gun in a law enforcement context the same sense of awesome responsibility that anyone in America carrying a firearm on the streets must have. Law enforcement is not a casual business, no matter who performs the necessary actions, and should never be taken lightly. Otherwise, there is far too great a probability that the enforcer will become judge, jury and executioner all in one.

(An aside: as Bryan Dumka points out, despite some claims, the case did not hinge on "stand your ground" behavior by Zimmerman.)


  1. Murdering Trayvon Martin twice!

    Will Trayvon Martin's killer George Zimmerman get his gun back after acquittal? 'He needs it more now,' says lawyer

    1. Thanks, Enfant. Few of us in America deny that a wrong has been done, or that Martin was deprived of justice in the usual sense of the word. In a way, the question is not "what would have been better" but rather "what would not have been worse." Abandoning the "reasonable doubt" standard would have been worse. Abandoning the presumption of innocence would have been worse. Here we have a trial that lets an apparently guilty man go free, but leaves two very important aspects of our legal system intact. I can accept the necessity even as I deplore the killing. And remember... Zimmerman's troubles are far from over.

      Please remember that Americans have seen it all before, in the O.J. Simpson case if nowhere else, and genuine justice may come in Trayvon Martin's case as it did in Simpson's, not from the criminal trial itself... Simpson, too, was acquitted... but rather from civil actions after the fact, which deprived Simpson of his wealth and ruined his reputation to the point where no one wanted to hire him, certainly not for product endorsements. Zimmerman may find himself in a similar situation: no one would hire him as a security guard, let alone a police officer, with this incident in his background, and I wouldn't be surprised if his life is in danger when he surfaces, wherever in America he ends up residing. It's not an ideal resolution, but at least the sense of it is right.

  2. In Florida concealed weapons permits are issued by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which has no access to criminal records or mental health records. So, if you say you haven't been convicted of any violent felonies and aren't insane, they have no official way of checking. It's an honor system, and there are some people who get turned down, so it must be working, right?

    Zimmerman has already retrieved the murder weapon, and I assume he is carrying it, wherever he is. Idaho is probably his best bet.

    1. Bryan, I can't help thinking of a conversation I once had with a neighborhood security guard (hired, uniformed) about 25 years ago. He was Hispanic. At some point in the discussion, he began a statement, "I hate to say it, but a lot of these black people wandering through the neighborhood..." He didn't finish the sentence, but the racism was evident; he wasn't hiding it at all. I'm not sure what it would take to overcome that prejudice, if it's even possible. But the prejudice is real, and dangerous. As long as concealed handgun licenses are available to people other than fully trained law enforcement officers, we will have incidents like Trayvon Martin's death. And in many of them, there will not be enough evidence to convict.



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