Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Zimmerman Verdict

Late last night, when I first learned that the jury in The State of Florida vs. George Zimmerman had handed down a "not guilty" verdict, I breathed a sigh of relief. Not because Zimmerman is a saint (he's not) but because the verdict showed that sober evidence had prevailed over raw emotion. And also, because it showed that the jury was serious about the core principle of American justice -- namely, the principle that a person must not be convicted unless the state has proven him guilty.

Some of us believe the evidence against Zimmerman was so lacking that he should have never even been made to stand trial. But that does not mean we should think of him as a positive symbol, for reasons touched on in the next three paragraphs.

Prior to the tragic night that ended with Trayvon Martin's death, Zimmerman had made many calls to 911 (I think the total number was 17) and none of the people he called about turned out to be up to anything bad. This tells me that he was hasty in his assumptions and overeager to play the role of cop. His critics can not be blamed for believing he would be too quick to pull a trigger.

I recall Zimmerman once claiming that, on the night in question, he forgot he was carrying a gun until Martin reached for it while beating him up. To which I say: Bullshit. As a gun owner myself, I can not conceive of any situation in which I would be carrying a weapon and not be acutely aware of that fact at every single second. Do I really need to explain why it makes no sense to think that a neighborhood watchman (especially one so quick to call the cops) would forget he had his gun on him when he left his home to follow someone he thought was up to no good? A far more likely explanation is that he felt comfortable leaving his home precisely because of the gun.

Zimmerman's own attorneys once dropped him for going on the lam, and you may recall that he was less than forthcoming about funds he was raising that were presumably to pay for his legal fees. I can completely understand the latter, given that the U.S. government has a penchant for freezing a person's assets right when they need to use them to mount a legal defense, but let's just say that neither of these instances said much for Zimmerman's veracity.

But as I said before, the core principle of American justice is that the government can not convict you of a crime without proving that you did in fact commit it. And for the crimes with which Zimmerman was charged, the standard of proof is "proof beyond a reasonable doubt," which means that the accused must be acquitted if there is any reason to doubt whether he committed them. Some people might not want to acknowledge it, but when it comes to George Zimmerman, there are a multitude of reasons to doubt whether he is guilty.

It all begins with the simple fact that, under Florida law, you have a right to use deadly force to defend yourself if you believe your life is in danger. Zimmerman claimed that this is exactly what he believed when he pulled the trigger, and there is simply no evidence to suggest otherwise.

Zimmerman told police that Martin was punching him and smashing his head into the concrete, and the evidence supports his account. On the night of the incident, the back of his head was lacerated and had bumps and bruises, while Martin's only blemishes (besides the gunshots) were bruises on his knuckles. If my eight-year-old daughter heard that, she would instantly surmise that Zimmerman's head wounds indicated he was telling the truth and Martin's knuckle wounds resulted from him using his fists to punch Zimmerman -- and she would make far more sense supporting that surmise than the smartest Harvard Ph.D. would make trying to contradict it. This is the very definition of reasonable doubt, and under the law it makes acquittal not only appropriate, but mandatory. None of us, black or white, Hispanic or Asian, Democrat or Republican, would want to live in a country where that was not the case.

To convict Zimmerman would render the law meaningless. It would establish a precedent by which our lives are subjugated to the emotions of the mob rather than the logic of the facts. It would be the polar opposite of what MLK termed "creat(ing) a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal."

However, the biggest lesson to be drawn from last night's verdict has nothing to do with the nature of evidence or the philosophy of being a nation of laws rather than of men. It has to do with our commonality as Americans, our goodness as people, and our willingness to evaluate each situation on its own merits.

In the days leading up to the verdict, many in the media were quick to raise the specter of racial strife, to sound the alarm that if Zimmerman was not found guilty, then the nation would erupt with violence akin to the Watts riots of 1965 and Rodney King riots of 1992. They were wrong.

In my opinion, the Watts and Rodney King riots were disgraceful affairs with few, if any, redeeming qualities. But they were local responses to local issues -- issues of which I, as a white man in Florida who was not born until 1971, can not claim to have any familiarity. The worry that race riots might erupt over last night's verdict strikes me as one of the most racist contrivances in my lifetime. It assumed that Americans from Los Angeles to Miami to Philadelphia to Detroit, who happened to be black, would start stoning people and burning buildings because of a single court case in a small town outside of Orlando. Where did this idea come from?

Not once in American history have black citizens erupted in a nationwide fit of violence because they didn't like the outcome of a trial -- yet no one seemed to find it unusual or offensive that our major news outlets were prepping us for that to occur in 2013. And when barbarism did not occur, our news outlets were curiously unrepentant about the fact they had expected it in the first place.

I went to middle school with a girl (who I guess I should refer to as a lady, since we are now in our forties) who now lives in Sanford, the same town where Trayvon Martin was killed and where Zimmerman's trial took place. Saturday, hours before the verdict was announced, this is what her husband wrote on Facebook:

Observations from my trip to the local Winn-Dixie in the heart of Sanford this morning:
-two black women donating money to the white soldier in front of the store
-a very bubbly and friendly white baker in the bakery department
-a very bubbly and friendly black cashier at the checkout
-no frowns or worry anywhere I could see, to say nothing of the complete lack of New Black Panthers and/or Neo-Nazis
Oh, and I gave directions to the flea market to an elderly Cuban man by telling him to drive south past the courthouse with all the camera crews and Flea World would be his next left.
This is my Sanford.

And that is my America. We squabble over politics and yell about sports, but more often than not, we are One. Like my grandfather always said, this is the United States of America; and though I often fret that the "united" part is becoming frayed, the Zimmerman verdict reaffirms that my fretting is based on how the media portrays us, not on what I see in my own interactions with my own fellow citizens.

Yes, I think the MSM needs to look in the mirror and stop accusing the rest of us of being elemental bigots and thugs. And I am grateful that last night's verdict proved we are a nation of people who act in good faith with respect for justice -- that we are a people who once again proved our doubters wrong.

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