The trial of George Zimmerman over his 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin – a trial that has captured massive national attention and stirred debate about racism and gun violence – is over. Zimmerman was found not guilty on all charges, and barring future related charges, he is today a free man. Given the amount of emotion and societal commentary that got tangled up in this case, it is unsurprising, though unfortunate, that the ruling has sparked passionate outrage from much of the country.
I say unfortunate because the public discussion surrounding the killing and trial became overwhelmingly focused on the supposedly racial elements of the whole ordeal, in a case that included no race or civil rights-related charges. The argument was and still is that neighborhood watch captain Zimmerman (a Hispanic) trailed and ultimately killed Martin (a Black) either fully or in significant part because of Martin’s race and prejudice on Zimmerman’s part.
However, the jury spoke and the ruling has been made. This is naturally awkward to this politically-divided America. We live in an age where every ruling from our most public of courts – the Supreme Court – is met with instantaneous calls for political action (the conservative reaction to the Obamacare ruling and the liberal reaction to the Citizens United ruling being prime examples). Calls are made by opponents of every SCOTUS ruling to change the laws (or even amend the Constitution) to offset and negate the decision, and new impetus is created for winning or maintaining control of the White House and the Senate such that new appointees to the Court may have a “better” understanding of the Constitution.
But criminal justice is an entirely different system. Juries are not elected or appointed by political mechanisms; they are drawn from the citizen population and through the course of the trial the evidence they may literally see is strictly controlled to maintain (as best as possible) their impartiality and the evidence-based process.
If a certain group of people is dissatisfied with a jury’s decision, they may work to alter the laws upon which the decision was based, but short of altering the millennia-old tradition of trial by jury, there is simply nothing that can be done to change the way in which criminal guilt is ultimately decided.
Interestingly enough, for a publication that has had a very definitive editorial slant throughout the Zimmerman trial (namely, a pure and frank desire to see Zimmerman found guilty), The Huffington Post had a very insightful initial reaction to the jury’s verdict. Immediately after the verdict was announced, HuffPost’s main headline read “Not Guilty*” followed by “*But Not Innocent”. This is exactly right; the altercation that led to the death of Trayvon Martin was the result of several clear mistakes that Zimmerman made by trailing Martin, so to say that he is innocent of any wrongdoing is objectively false. However, based on the evidence available and the unfortunate lack of firm eyewitness testimony, the jury decided they had reasonable doubt that Zimmerman’s actions in the final confrontation constituted either second-degree murder or manslaughter.
As unfortunate the dearth of evidence (one way or the other) is and despite the apparent reality that so many unconnected Americans seem to think they have full understanding of the details of the confrontation, the simple fact is that only two people know exactly what happened that day, and sadly only one of them is still with us. Inherent to our national and cultural commitment to trial by jury is a commitment to the principle that personal liberty is such a valuable right that it is better to acquit someone who is in truth guilty than to wrongfully sentence an innocent.
One may legitimately criticize the actions taken by the local police following the killing of Martin, or the Florida “Stand Your Ground” law upon which many thought Zimmerman would base his defense. However, both of these factors became by definition irrelevant in the final and consequential segment of the case – the jury’s deliberation and decision. Zimmerman was robustly prosecuted in the trial proper and Zimmerman’s defense did not use the Stand Your Ground argument.
So when it ultimately came down to it, the only way the factor of race could have swayed the verdict towards Zimmerman’s acquittal would have been if the jurors themselves were racist against Martin because he was Black (such a scenario would require that the jurors either have no prejudice against Hispanics or that they are simply more prejudiced against Blacks).
However, this is just a dead end; we will never and can never know the content of the hearts of the jurors who decided Zimmerman’s fate, and there is no way we can ever know the hearts of any jurors. Our criminal justice system is not democratic in the common sense of the term, but it does place its trust in the goodwill and uprightness of our citizen-jurors.
So to say, as some are, that this case and verdict disproves the idea that our society is “post-racial,” only this can be said: Not true…but not necessarily false.