The Law’s the Law

Common misconception: legal decisions aren’t about law.

Here are a few examples: when the Supreme Court invalidated parts of the Voting Rights Act, liberals freaked out because it showed that America still has racist ways. When it invalidated parts of the Defense of Marriage Act, conservatives (and liberals) thought the nine justices were making a moral statement about human sexuality. And now, with George Zimmerman not guilty of murder in the Trayvon Martin case, well:

Zimmerman’s defense actually didn’t rely on the ‘stand your ground’ law, so you can’t really blame FL law. Just racism!” “im glad i live in a world where lynching an unarmed, unaggressive teenager is legal” “Trayvon Martin was found guilty of being a black man.” “its legal to kill blacks.” “There is no justice. A defenseless teenager was stalked and murdered in cold blood.”

These quotations arrived in my Twitter feed within 30 minutes of the jury reaching a verdict.

Whether you think George Zimmerman was acquitted only because of racism, or you think that gay people can enjoy marriage benefits only because of a trendy political cause, you’re guilty of one bad mental misstep: assuming that legal decisions are made for non-legal reasons.

Yes, interpreting the law is a bit like interpreting the Bible; it’s open to various interpretations and your readings can be influenced by outside factors. But if you read a Supreme Court ruling, you’ll find that no matter how hot the political issue, the rulings are made based on legal precedents and arguments, not moral ones (unless the justice is Antonin Scalia). Take the example of extending federal marriage benefits to gay couples who are married: for most of us, it’s the right thing to do because gay people are equal to straight people. For the law, it’s still the right thing to do, but for a different reason: because the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment affords all of us equal protection under the law.

And now the George Zimmerman trial has reached a verdict. Everyone, from the mass media to most of my circle of friends, has assumed that the trial would work like this:

guilty = racism is dead in America
not guilty = America hates black people

Actually, it worked like this:

guilty = sufficient evidence to prove his guilt
not guilty = reasonable doubt about his guilt

Personally, I think George Zimmerman is a horrible man. I think he was racist. I think he followed Trayvon Martin solely because Martin was black. I think he caused Martin to die for no reason. I think he provoked Martin into the fight which ended in Martin’s death. I think Donna Brazile is right: “I respect the verdict, but I still believe that Zimmerman had the upper hand and chose to profile, follow & later kill an unarmed teenager.”

Could I prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that Zimmerman is guilty of second-degree murder? No. Could I prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that Zimmerman was the aggressor? No. Could I prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense is bullshit? No.

The case is maddening. There are no witnesses, everyone disagrees on everything, most of the important arguments are speculation. We know Zimmerman followed Martin because he was a vigilante wannabe cop who was scared of black people. But what happened next? The only living person who knows is George Zimmerman. It sucks.

Do you see what I mean? This is the law. You can’t say, “Guilty because he’s an asshole.” Or “guilty because he’s racist.” Or “guilty because Trayvon Martin should be alive today.” You can only, ONLY, say, “Guilty because the evidence leaves no reasonable doubt.”

My father sat on a jury once. Attempted murder. He said, “The defendant was probably guilty. But the prosecution didn’t have the evidence they needed to prove it.”

I know it makes for a sucky story. I know Martin’s death is a moral outrage. And I know George Zimmerman’s actions violently destroyed a valuable life. But in the United States a defendant is innocent until proven guilty. I hope you never learn how valuable that principle is first-hand.

Two more thoughts.

1. George Zimmerman’s life is ruined. He will never hold down a decent job again, and certainly will never achieve his dream of being a cop. He won’t even be a mall cop. We can all be thankful for that.

2. You know what this country needs? Gun control laws.

9 Comments

Filed under Ill-Informed Opinion

9 responses to “The Law’s the Law

  1. Incredibly well put, I can honestly say that I could not have POSSIBLY said this better.

  2. ben uni flatmate

    For the first time I cannot disagree with you more. Will explain when sober tomorrow.

  3. kendall

    Thank you for sharing this, Brian. It’s a really helpful perspective to keep when thoughts like “George Zimmerman is responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death and got away with it” are pushing me toward thoughts like “”There is no justice, that jury is racist”….but I still have questions

    -Why wasn’t Zimmerman convicted of manslaughter or another crime besides murder?

    -Why did the prosecution allow a jury with no African Americans on it to be selected? How did that happen?

    -Why did that African American lady in Fl get 20 years for firing warning shots at her abusive husband and Zimmerman get nothing?

  4. Adrian – thanks!
    Ben – no fair, I still had a couple beers in me when I wrote this!
    Kendall –
    – A friend of mine in law school said that the manslaughter option made it more likely he’d be convicted. Apparently the jury believes he genuinely acted in self-defense (not sure manslaughter applies then).
    – Defense gets say, too. I can’t remember the details, but isn’t there a thing where attorneys can reject a number of (like 5 or 6) potential jurors without even saying why?
    – I don’t know. That case makes me a lot angrier than this one does. She should never have been charged in the first place.

  5. Dr. David

    By and large I agree with your commentary.
    But, the country has gun control laws. They just don’t matter.
    A point you did not discuss, but which should be mentioned, is that the greatest risk to black men is other black men. Most perps and most victims have long criminal histories, both black and white. Most cannot legally own guns, but they honor gun control laws just as they honor laws against drugs and homicide.
    Guns are a fact of life and they are not going away. There are ~300,000,000 guns in circulation, and most cannot be traced to their current owners. There are 80,000,000 to 100,000,000 gun owners, nearly all of which pose no risk to anyone. Gun violence is largely congregated to a minority of members of definable demographic groups. Those members, which certainly do not define the larger group, commit nearly all the homicides.

  6. bob

    It really sucks that so many people have kneejerk reactions to anything politically. As I gun control laws would make anything better? I have no reason to believe anyone who is a criminal wouldn’t act as such, and that the common people (especially in cities) would be any safer. As for Zimmerman, you said it yourself. There’s not enough evidence to judge his character. He was neighborhood watch in an area with recent breakins and a stranger was walking through the area at night. GZ’s watch responsibility is to do just that. Watch. Who knows if TM would have broken into a home and possibly harmed himself or others. Not that he wasn’t stupid for doing what he did (he definitely didn’t make a smart choice) but he had to make a choice to risk his situation to hopefully make his place of residence safer. It isn’t about black and white and mexican. It’s simply a bad situation.

  7. Yutaka Jono

    I cannot agree with such a statement such as “guilty = racism is dead in America.” I think no one who is aware of the racism in this country would take the result of this case and consider it dead.

  8. This is the first article on this story I’ve read and agreed with everything it said. It’s the first article I’ve read and not been enraged enough to be able to see it in the eyes of someone else. And I COMPLETELY agree with Kendall. There are cases in which the roles have been reversed and they’ve gotten the minimum sentence but they still served jail time. No one can corroborate 1 single story and Zimemrman used that to his advantage. Guilty or not, all that came out of that situation was a dead, defenseless teenage boy and no one to take responsibility for the crime. Well written.

  9. Dr. David

    Briana, perhaps there was no crime. If GZ fired in self-defense, then he committed no crime. If TM did indeed attack him, then a crime may have been committed. But we will probably never know exactly what happened.

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