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.