14 July 2013

The Zimmerman case: presumptions of guilt

So far, people have managed to express their outrage over the acquittal of George Zimmerman in peaceful ways, which may mean that we've progressed in the generation since the L.A. riots. Social media may have something to do with it, everyone being more conscious that there are eyes on them all the time and more people being reached with advice to remain peaceful despite their anger. It should be obvious, however, that peace is not acquiescence. Millions of Americans will not accept the verdict of the six-woman jury as the last word on the fatal encounter between Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. It seems unfathomable, no matter how often Florida law is explained, that Zimmerman should suffer no legal penalty for killing Martin, especially when you consider that Martin is dead because Zimmerman doesn't know how to fight. If he lets a teenager get on top of him and pummel him like they're in the Octagon and can only shoot his way out of the predicament, he's definitely in the wrong line of work. But Florida allows for a level of force other states deem excessive and anyone would consider disproportionate so long as the perpetrator feels himself in mortal peril, as Zimmerman feared that Martin would beat him to death. As the jurors understood the law, it meant that Zimmerman should not be punished for defending himself, even if he had to kill an unarmed teenager (and, apparently, a superior fighter) in the process. I assumed that the right to self-defense is founded on a basic respect for life, but in some parts of the country self-defense is a higher priority than life itself. I'm sure that neither Zimmerman's attorneys nor the jurors would say that Martin deserved to die, but they should not be shocked if people infer from the verdict that that was their opinion. If you insist, and in the jurors' case you order, that Zimmerman is not to be punished, why should no one assume that you think that Zimmerman was not just within his rights, but just plain right to shoot Martin? Can we get any of these people at least to say that Zimmerman's act, if not criminal, was wrong? Or would his lawyers for the impending civil suits discourage such sentiments?

At last night's press conference a reporter asked the defense team whether the story would have played out differently if Zimmerman -- who identified himself as "Hispanic" in the last census -- were black. One of the lawyers answered that things would have been very different; the case would never have gone to trial. He expresses the widespread assumption that Zimmerman was race-baited by race-hustlers who cynically exploited Martin's death for political reasons. There's probably a kernel of truth in the observation. I don't doubt that some people think this way:

A young black man was killed.
The killer was not black.
Therefore, the victim was killed because he was black.

However, I think the attorney was wrong. I suspect that a black Zimmerman would have been prosecuted since, as a neighborhood-watchman, the theoretical perpetrator would be seen as part of The System first, and as a black man second. To expand on the syllogism above, if anyone empowered to act on suspicion of criminal activity or intentions -- a watchman, security guard or cop -- kills a black man, then the victim was killed because he was black as far as some people are concerned. That's why sympathizers with Martin and supporters of the prosecution continue to insist on the relevance of Zimmerman's apparent profiling of Martin. I heard at least one legal expert lament the absence of a black juror who could have explained the relevance of profiling to the rest of the panel. How would that have made a difference? You would have to accept the premise that Zimmerman had somehow surrendered his right to self-defense because he had hassled Martin. But while many may feel that Zimmerman deserved a beating for hassling Martin, the law won't back up that sentiment. Had a policeman arrived before Zimmerman fired his gun and found Martin on top of him, Martin would probably be in jail today, no one having accepted his resentment of profiling as an excuse for the battering he inflicted on the hapless watchman. Of course, the complexion of everything changes if you accept the prosecution implication that Martin only attacked because he thought his own life in danger. But the jurors were not convinced that Zimmerman had already menaced Martin to an extent to justify his violent reaction -- and even if they had, I can't imagine them deciding that Zimmerman had to submit to a potentially fatal beating. The irony of the situation is that Martin might have had a better chance of beating any rap had he actually beaten Zimmerman to death than if he had been pulled off beforehand, because then, as with Zimmerman now, it's his word (plus cell-phone recordings) against the silence of the dead. In any event, my main point is that Zimmerman was going to be presumed guilty of a hate crime by some people the moment the news broke, but I think it goes too far to presume, as Zimmerman's defenders do, that bias of that kind is the only reason Zimmerman ever went to trial. It's not just a matter of feeling but arguably an objective fact that shooting his unarmed attacker was an unreasonably excessive use of force that should be penalized. If Florida law immunizes him from any penalty for the sake of a self-defense dogma that has become an end unto itself -- an exalting of force over life -- then Florida law needs to change. Even FOX News reporters last night opined that the state's "stand your ground" rules are too broad in their implicit authorization of lethal force in most cases. Something clearly needs to be done, but the Florida legislature is reportedly dominated by rural Republicans who are self-defense extremists. Under current constitutional rules, a national consensus, if it exists, can't be implemented nationally without amending the Constitution. It may have been easier long, long ago, when a Zimmerman may have paid wergild to a Martin's survivors to end the matter -- but that seemed uncivilized at some point. Maybe we don't even need that. Maybe it would make more difference than some of us can imagine if George Zimmerman would state publicly that, the jury's opinion notwithstanding, what he did to Martin was wrong. It wouldn't be much of a consolation to Martin's relatives, but it'd be better than nothing and the nation would probably be better off for it.


Anonymous said...

"... to accept the premise that Zimmerman had somehow surrendered his right to self-defense because he had hassled Martin."

By "hassling" Martin, Zimmerman should NOT even have been allowed a "self-defense" defense. In getting out of his vehicle to confront Martin, Zimmerman became the aggressor. How can one claim "self-defense" when one is the aggressor? The problem is the jury - juries in general - are made up of relatively uneducated Americans with little or no faculty for critical thinking. This is a failure of justice and proof of the failure of our jury system.

Samuel Wilson said...

I can go with your reasoning if your point is that Zimmerman surrendered his legal right of self-defense, i.e. his immunity from penalties -- not his human prerogative to protect himself if someone is potentially beating him to death. What the jurors apparently perceived was that Martin's response was disproprtionate to whatever hassling he suffered from Zimmerman, but as many critics of their verdict have noted, they've set a precedent allowing anyone in Florida to pick a fight with and kill someone else as long as he can convince a jury that he feared for his life and the victim is unable to refute the claim.

Anonymous said...

So apparently Zimmerman has been arrested once again. In fact, in the past couple of years, he's been arrested or stopped by police a number of times for various violations of traffic law and at least two (counting the latest) charges of assault. Seems his jury really jumped the shark.

I would bet he has a strong case of guilt eating away at him for his murder of Martin and subconsciously is trying to get himself put in jail on a lesser charge in an attempt to alleviate it.