Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Tragedy and Travesty - A Few Brief Thoughts on The Zimmerman Case

Your Typical Neighbourhood Watchman?

Speaking just after George Zimmerman's acquittal, one of his defence lawyers, Don West, stated the following:

"I'm thrilled that this jury kept the tragedy from becoming a travesty."

Was he right? Well, yes. Under American law (more specifically, the law of Florida), there really was no case for Zimmerman to answer to. If he had been convicted of murder, or indeed the lesser charge of manslaughter, that would have made a mockery of the legal system, of the laws under which the trial should be conducted.

Yes, then. But also no. No by a long shot.

Why? Why might the George Zimmerman case nevertheless be considered a travesty?

Well, not because of the trial as such. It was conducted relatively swiftly and yet fully. Not because any great mistakes were made, although it might be argued that the prosecution's case was, well, half-hearted at best. And most certainly not because of racial tensions, which may play a great part in the way many feel about the case but which had no real impact on the legal proceedings.

It was, nevertheless, a travesty because of one simple reason: the law sucks.

There, I've said it. Bluntly, as Don West might have himself. The law sucks. It is the law, not anything else, that has made a mockery of this case, that has turned a tragedy into a travesty.

Whichever way you wish to look at this, George Zimmerman was a wannabe cop. He was a neighbourhood volunteer, whatever that means. He was driving around in his car. He was carrying a gun. He saw Trayvon Martin, whom he immediately, if for unclear reasons, identified as an "asshole" and "a punk".

He got out of his car, and - against the advice of the police, whom he called - followed Martin. They got into an altercation. It is unclear who initiated this; it is unclear who had the upper hand in the fight that ensued, although that may well have been Martin. In any case, at one point Zimmerman pulled out his gun and shot Martin at point blank range.

In short, Zimmerman killed Martin. In doing so, he may well have started out with the best of intentions (something that I would tend to basically believe). But if so, those intentions had the worst possible outcome.

That is the case. Now, given this, what would a reasonable person assume?

He or she, surely, would first assume that Zimmerman had killed Martin after having decided to go after him because, for incomprehensible reasons, he considered Martin a "suspect". He or she would realise that Zimmerman had no true - no objectifiable - justification for this at all. Again, I don't know quite what a "neighbourhood volunteer" is, but I do know that being one does not grant anyone specific powers or authority. And whilst I very seriously doubt Martin was sweetest kid in all the world, I also know that, at the time, he was not engaged in any activity even remotely suspicious; the kid was just walking home.

Secondly, a reasonable person would surely have to accept that the altercation which ensued must be, initially at least, the result of Zimmerman's actions, and not Martin's. One might perhaps change one's assumption in this regard if there was convincing evidence to contradict this, but barring such evidence, the assumption stands: the fight that ensued between the two was initiated (or should I say instigated?) by Zimmerman, who, I repeat, had no objective justification for this whatsoever.

Thirdly,  a reasonable person would take into consideration a number of  additional facts which, whilst in themselves not conclusive, nevertheless present a fuller picture. The most important of these is that whilst Zimmerman carried a gun, Martin was unarmed; he had no weapon of any kind.

What, then, is the basic conclusion any reasonable person would have to draw from this? Surely it must be that, prima facie (that is, barring evidence to the contrary) Zimmerman unlawfully - illegally - killed Martin. Surely it must be that Zimmerman committed a crime.

Could that be different? Well, of course it could. It could and would be different if, specifically, it turned out that Zimmerman did not, in fact, accost or attempt to accost Martin - if, in fact, it was Martin who turned on Zimmerman once Zimmerman had gotten out of his car. Did that happen? Well, that's the point. I don't know - in fact, no-one knows. 

And we don't know because Zimmerman himself never truly attempted to prove his version of events; his defence never got sufficiently close to this issue. They certainly presented evidence - rather a lot of evidence, in fact - to establish "reasonable doubt" - whereby they in effect established that there was a possibility that it was Martin who attacked Zimmerman - but they offered no real proof of this at all.   

Why not? Well, because they didn't have to. In America - certainly in Florida - you don't have to justify shooting someone. In fact, the opposite applies: the prosecution has to prove that the shooting is unlawful. And that includes refuting any claim of self-defence, once such a claim is made.

So the burden of proof is squarely on the prosecution. Not only do they have to prove - beyond a reasonable doubt - that their suspect actually murdered someone, but they also have to prove - again, beyond a reasonable doubt - that the suspect did not act in self-defence, once that claim is made. And it is the second part of this burden which is highly problematic, as this case shows.

Let me exaggerate just a bit. In Florida, I can go out and shoot my neighbour any day of the week. I can have a row with my girlfriend and shoot her, too. I can go out and shoot George Zimmerman, just because he happened to go out and shoot Trayvon Martin. And I can do all these things and still have a very good chance of not being prosecuted, if, that is, I can reasonably claim self defence, and if it turns out that the prosecution cannot disprove the veracity of that claim. And the prosecution, in a great many cases, will not be able to do that, since, after all, the only people potentially capable of providing the necessary evidence in this regard has just been shot. By me.

In other words, as long as there are no witnesses, I may well be fine. I may have murdered a few people, but I get away scot free.

So what does all this mean? Well, it means that, in this case, it's not the circumstances. It's not the media. And it's not race, either. It's just the law. And, yes, it does very much seem as if the law sucks. And, yes, it does very much seem as if the law is, in such cases, a travesty.

After the trial four of the six jurors released a statement. "The death of a teenager weighed heavily on our hearts," they said, "but in the end we did what the law required us to do."


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