The Zimmerman Verdict

23:15 Sun 14 Jul 2013
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George Zimmerman, accused of second-degree murder and/or manslaughter of Trayvon Martin, was acquitted yesterday. The social media response I’ve seen has been almost uniformly one of disgust or despair, intermingled with the apparent belief that the verdict is representative of racism in the United States (and, perhaps, in Florida particularly).

Based on what I know, I think Zimmerman probably accosted Martin in some way and provoked or initiated the struggle that ended with his killing Martin. And had I been on the jury, I would have voted to acquit. Because “probably” isn’t enough.

It has to be beyond a reasonable doubt. Given the available evidence, there’s no way to establish that. No matter how many of us think, suspect, or feel that he did it, we can’t prove it.

And that is how trials should work. Making them work in some other fashion, lowering the burden of proof in any way, is extraordinarily dangerous and leads to many more miscarriages of justice—yes, miscarriages worse than this if you believe Zimmerman guilty, because a guilty person walking free is not as great an injustice as a person falsely imprisoned[1].

The lowering of that burden of proof, and those miscarriages of justice, happen every day in this country. The statistics about how few individuals make it to trial, and about the difference race (and money) make in the outcomes of trials, makes this difficult to dispute. I cannot prove that the majority of jurors are unable to truly believe that the accused are innocent until proven guilty, but I think the court system deliberately and effectively undermines this notion. The odds, particularly when it comes to defendants relying on public defenders, are stacked in favor of prosecutors. They have more people, they have more time (because they have more control over scheduling), they have more resources (including, for example, the police), and they have routinely bent and broken what rules there are without meaningful sanction[2].

As terrible as it is, the process of the Zimmerman trial, and of most “celebrity” trials, are actually what we should want in court cases in this country. They’re not at all typical, which is something that’s often forgotten in the frenzy of coverage. The coverage itself means that all participants, including the judge, are under far greater scrutiny than would normally be the case, which is to the benefit of the trial. Most cases have no media coverage at all, and judges are able to get away with an awful lot—almost as much as prosecutors.

Zimmerman shooting Martin is absolutely a reflection of racism and race relations in the US. Zimmerman being acquitted given this evidence is not. It’s also not symbolic of the value that America places on a young black man’s life, as I’ve seen others claim. Nor do we need it to be, because if we want evidence of that value, we have masses of statistics that make it clear.

Black men (not including Hispanics) accounted for just under 40% of the US prison population[3] in 2010. That is a massively disproportionate number, and without any other evidence makes the racism of the system apparent. But there is other evidence, such as blacks being 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, despite about even usage rates. It’s even apparent at the policy level, as with the infamous disparity in sentencing for “crack” cocaine versus powder cocaine, despite no demonstrable differences between the two. The entire “war on drugs” is a vast racist enterprise whose toll in human misery is unfathomable—and is paid predominantly by black men.

As for young black men in particular? If you look up sentencing for young black men between 16 and 18 and compare that to young white men of the same age, you will find evidence of racism there, too.

It’s not just drugs, of course. The case of Marissa Alexander, also in Florida, is telling. For firing a warning shot into the ceiling to try to scare off her (admittedly!) abusive husband, she was sentenced to 20 years in prison. The DA? The same as in the Zimmerman case. Is that case an example of racism? Hard to say, but this article[4] shows that white-on-black killings are far more likely to be found justifiable than those with black killers. I have a really hard time seeing a white woman in Alexander’s position. (To say nothing of a something like this.)

But though racism is clearly a huge problem, so is the “justice system” itself. If we eliminated the racism by charging and imprisoning white people at the same higher rates as black people, that would be both “fairer” and worse.

A common thread in all this is fear of crime. Zimmerman appears to have been motivated in part by a conviction that young black men are very likely to be “criminals”. Did he think that up for himself? Is he somehow unique or rare in that? Hardly. Fear sells, and pandering to stereotypes sells, and the combination of the two is what the media gives us.

And what we lap up. Crime rates in America have been falling for years, and yet a majority of Americans believes—and has believed for years—that crime rates are rising. That makes the apparent easy answer—to be “tough on crime”—a near-mandatory stance for politicians. Longer sentences, criminalizing more things, giving police more money—and not worrying about soft concepts like the causes of crime or “justice”.

That approach is popular because it’s not very demanding. Divide the world into “good people” and “bad people”, assert that the former must be protected from the latter, and call all opposition—or even those simply raising the questions of incentives—“soft on crime”. Adding racism is common but optional.

There are complicating other factors, such as the prison-industrial complex (including the prison guard unions) and vast amounts of terrible incentives, but the basics are that we eagerly consume the stories about fear; the fear makes us both susceptible to horrifically simplistic “answers” and to the notion that only “strong” authority can “protect” us; our politicians give us the appearance of such authority and of “doing something about crime”; almost the entire enterprise is steeped in racist attitudes that the fearmongering only exacerbates (and yes, the number of “kidnapped white girl” versus “kidnapped black girl” (or boy, for that matter) stories is another example of this).

George Zimmerman walking free may be an injustice[5], but one man walking free pales, in terms of injustice, when compared to hundreds of thousands imprisoned—and imprisoned in our name—for things that they they didn’t do, that shouldn’t be illegal, that wouldn’t have resulted in jail time if their skin were another color.

[1] If you don’t agree on this, if you think that a guilty person getting away with it is equal to or worse than falsely imprisoning someone, then we’re probably too far apart for useful dialogue; your ethics are simply too alien to mine.

[2] As far as I can tell, there are simply no ways to deal with prosecutors who abuse the system; they’re immune from prosecution unless one can prove deliberate malice—a nigh-impossible standard—and even then I’m not sure real punishment would occur.

[3] Which is the highest in the world. Not just per capita, but by raw numbers.

[4] Which is actually wrong about the Zimmerman case, where the Florida “stand your ground” law was not invoked.

[5] The whole point being that we can’t actually be completely certain that it is. My friend Cip summed up the situation succinctly by pointing out that it’s pretty easy to generate reasonable doubt if you kill the witness.

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3 Responses to “The Zimmerman Verdict”

  1. monsun Says:

    It seems that Marissa Alexander didn’t fire “a warning shot into the ceiling” but rather shot at a wall (possibly near the head of her abusive husband), which ricocheted into the ceiling. Small yet significant difference.

  2. Connie Says:

    Research has shown that in the U.S. racial bias exists in convictions and death penalty sentencing, based on the race of the person who was murdered. Convictions are more likely when the victim was white.
    Amnesty International has information on this, and there are other sources online.
    This has been well known within the judicial system for at least two decades; I remember reading some of those studies back then.

  3. jeffliveshere Says:

    “Zimmerman shooting Martin is absolutely a reflection of racism and race relations in the US. Zimmerman being acquitted given this evidence is not.”

    You say this as if the notion of reasonable doubt, and how it is employed practically, isn’t possibly influenced by institutionalized racism, which seems kind of impossible, especially given all of the evidence of racism in the justice system you’re talking about. Meaning: It’s not as if the concept of reasonable doubt isn’t influenced by how the jurors may have thought about race (e.g. they may have thought there was less reasonable doubt if Zimmerman had been black and Martin white). Sure, if people used the concept in some hyper-logical way (as they’re ‘supposed to’, I guess), your point would be stronger.

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