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The George Zimmerman trial: Justice, tragedy, and the law
Criminal trials take place in an environment of law, not justice. Verdicts often don't meet our standards of justice. But they usually meet our standards of law.
LAPD officers in riot gear look at protesters in the streets around Leimert Park following a prayer vigil against the acquittal of George Zimmerman on July 16.
LAPD officers in riot gear look at protesters in the streets around Leimert Park following a prayer vigil against the acquittal of George Zimmerman on July 16. Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
W

as justice served in the George Zimmerman trial?

The problem with this question is that it assumes that "justice" in the moral sense was at stake in the trial of Zimmerman, or anyone else's trial, for that matter. Justice isn't an objective quality, guaranteed universally by juries or judges or courtrooms anywhere in the world, including the U.S. Justice depends on perspective, and even in that sense, any outcome from the Zimmerman case would have fallen far short of that ideal.

Criminal trials take place in an environment of law, not justice. That allows citizens on a jury to objectively apply the explicit and specific laws when a crime is alleged against a defendant. In our system, where we value the rights of citizens over the power of government, prosecutors in criminal trials have to prove the crime and the defendant's guilt outside of any reasonable doubt. In fact, they have a duty to hold off on prosecuting anyone without meeting a standard of probable cause, to prevent abuses of government power against citizens.

On those values, Americans agree, at least in principle. The outcomes of this system do not necessarily meet our standards of justice, but they usually meet our standards of law.

The problem in the Zimmerman case is that there isn't enough objective evidence of what exactly happened in that deadly confrontation in Sanford, Fla. It's possible that Zimmerman stalked and attacked Trayvon Martin, despite having first called the police, out of fear and anger over a rash of burglaries that had been committed in the neighborhood. It's possible that Martin attacked Zimmerman out of fear and anger over being watched and suspected of wrongdoing when he wasn't doing anything to deserve it. What witness testimony the jury heard was contradictory on those points, and the physical evidence was inconclusive as to whether Zimmerman needed to shoot Martin to save himself from death or grave bodily harm, the legal threshold for self-defense. A jury in those circumstances has to acquit, not because that's justice, but because it's the law.

No party in this case will feel that justice was done. The police had originally closed its investigation of Zimmerman, concluding that the evidence was lacking to charge him with manslaughter or murder. The state only brought charges against Zimmerman after public outrage forced them to reopen the investigation. The media stoked the fires with inaccurate reporting, arguably to the point of libel, driving a sensational narrative of racism that the FBI concluded didn't exist and that ignored Zimmerman's own multiethnic heritage. The New York Times practically coined the term "white Hispanic" for Zimmerman, which fueled the racial angle of the case. The sensationalism and inaccuracies led to the demand for a second-degree murder charge against Zimmerman, an overreach that the prosecution didn't come close to proving.

Even with the acquittal, I doubt that Zimmerman feels as though he's seen justice. He's been vilified and threatened for more than a year, and will be for the rest of his life.

That pales in comparison to the experience of the victim's family. Trayvon Martin, 17, was on his way to see his father when he got killed. He was unarmed and merely walking through the neighborhood when the confrontation happened, and Trayvon got shot and killed anyway. The police at the time didn't take action against the man who shot him. After more than a year of demanding justice, his family doesn't even have the comfort of a verdict.

As the father of a young man myself, I can't help but put myself in the Martins' shoes. My son, perhaps like Trayvon, had the typical teenage contempt for authority (oftentimes mine, but also the police and nosy neighbors) and got into more than a few ill-advised confrontations. My son got the chance to outgrow it. Trayvon didn't.

None of this is justice, and none of this is "right." Thanks to the sensationalism that surrounded this trial, the lack of justice has stoked emotions on all sides. The demonization of both Zimmerman and Martin escalated in the aftermath of the verdict to keep the opposing narratives in operation. Neither faction has room for the possibility that Trayvon Martin was a teenager whose judgment, anger, and fear might have been typical for a 17-year-old, or that George Zimmerman wanted to protect his neighborhood but showed poor judgment in how to go about it.

Archetypes and narratives may allow us to put events like this shooting on our hobby horses for the benefit of personal agendas, but those archetypes and narratives contributed to this tragic outcome. Ironically, instead of learning a lesson from that, we have thought leaders, celebrities, and ordinary people stoking anger and fear in the aftermath of the trial, rather than finding ways to reduce and eliminate those barriers so that we can avoid this kind of heartbreak the next time.

If we want justice — actual justice — that is how we will find it.

Edward Morrissey writes for Hot Air and hosts several internet and radio talk shows. His columns have appeared in the Washington Post, the New York PostThe New York Sun, the Washington Times, and other newspapers.

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