Thoughts on the State v. Zimmerman Verdict: Everything That’s Right and Wrong with the U.S. Justice System
The morning after the jury’s verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman’s for killing Trayvon Martin, I read dozens—perhaps as many as hundreds of FB posts, news articles, and blogs concerning the case. One of the most infuriating posts I saw praised the justice system and said, “We cannot allow politics, political correctness, and race to enter into justice.” Rather than responding by posting a “comment” decrying the author’s ignorance, I decided to write this instead. My seemingly paradoxical premise is that the Zimmerman verdict is both right and wrong at the same time.
First and foremost, a young, unarmed teenaged boy was shot and killed. And that in and of itself is a tragedy. Life is precious and the loss of an innocent life is something that should be mourned by all. Trayvon Martin and his family deserve “justice” of a sort that the verdict denied.
Second—and to respond directly to the first of the uninformed assertions I wish to address, “justice” is inextricably tied to “politics.” There is no separating the two. Why? Well, for one thing, laws are created through a political process. In other words, no laws get enacted unless the body politic endorses them. But perhaps more importantly, all of our individual conceptualizations of “justice”—including those who serve as jurors—are based on the political philosophies we have adopted as our own worldviews. Some see “justice” as equality of outcomes; others deride such views as inherently unjust, instead focusing on “justice” as a quality that protects individual rights and liberties. Some see “justice” as nothing more than equality of processes—an emphasis on fairness of procedures rather than outcomes; others reject the notion that processes can be “fair” if they lead to unjust outcomes. And still others see “justice” as serving retribution—either through revenge (“an eye for an eye”) or through the atonement of sin; others reject the notion that it is ever “just” to seek retribution, arguing that “two wrongs don’t make a right.” My point here is that whatever one considers to be “just” is tied to one’s philosophical beliefs which, in turn, affects one’s beliefs about law and politics. Any argument, therefore, that politics doesn’t affect the law, its implementation, its enforcement, or its interpretation is misplaced.
Third, in the words of Dr. Cornell West, “race matters” (1994). I literally shuddered when I read the posting arguing that we “cannot allow . . . race to enter justice” because race affects nearly every aspect of the justice system’s operations! Let’s start with looking at the “stand your ground” (SYG) law. The law itself reflects a certain politic—that it is justifiable to take a life rather than retreat in safety—a perspective adopted primarily in southern and western states. In contrast, the law in most northern and mid-western states imposes a duty to retreat (if one can do so safely) before the use of deadly force is considered justifiable. Which approach is the more just? People with diverse political philosophies would undoubtedly answer that question differently. But empirical data provides an answer to this question with which it is hard to argue.
SYG laws clearly tilt “the odds in favor of the shooter” (Roman & Downey, 2012, para. 3). In fact, “in SYG states, 13.6% of homicides under these circumstances are found to be justified. In non-SYG states, only 7.2 percent are justified (para 8). But, Dr. Lisa Wade (2013) asks, the real question is “which homicides?” (para. 3). Wade argues — and the Zimmerman verdict illustrates — that although SYG laws increase the chances of a not-guilty verdict, they do so only when the defendant is accused of killing a Black person. There is no such increase when the accused kills a White person (Roman & Downey, 2012). In other words, SYG laws increase “racial bias in legal outcomes” (Wade, 2013, para. 5). This comes as no surprise to those of us who actually study the justice system (as opposed to those who—thanks to social media, the nature of web-based self-publishing, and the de-professionalization of journalism vis-à-vis punditry—espouse rhetoric that is unsupported by factual evidence). After all, scholars have argued for years that death penalty laws similarly promote racial bias in legal outcomes as illustrated by the fact that (after controlling for a wide array of nonracial variables such as socio-economic class and mode of killing), Blacks are 3.5 to 8 times more likely than Whites to face trial on a capital crime than Whites are (Baldus, Pulaski, & Woodworth, 1983; Baldus, Woodworth, Zukerman, Wiener, & Broffitt, 1998; Paternoster, 2013; Pierce & Radlet, 2005). In fact, the U.S. General Accounting Office (1990) conducted a meta-analysis of peer-reviewed research on the death penalty in 1990 and reported that 82% of the studies reviewed found that the races of the victim and accused significantly influenced the likelihood of being charged with capital murder or receiving the death penalty. Consider, for example that only 27.6% of murder victims in California are White, yet 80% of executions in the state involved defendants convicted of killing Whites (Pierce & Radlet, 2005). And that’s in a supposed “liberal” state; the statistics are starker in the South (Baldus, et al., 1983).
If one is not persuaded by statistics (even though such empirical proof comes from peer-reviewed studies), all one needs to do is look at how SYG laws have been applied to see that the Zimmerman verdict aligns with Roman and Downey’s findings. In May 2012, “Marissa Alexander, a 31-year-old mother of three, with a master’s degree and no criminal record” was convicted in Florida for aggravated assault for firing a warning shot at her abusive husband (Halper, 2013, para. 3). Although no one was hurt, she was convicted and sentenced to 20 years (a sentence, I would argue, is inherently unjust as a disproportionate punishment for the underlying act, regardless of whether it was justified or not). The SYG law didn’t work for this Black woman—par for the course for SYG laws. Whites who shoot and kill Blacks successfully use SYG laws in approximately 34% of cases nationwide (a figure that staggeringly increases to 73% in Florida). In contrast, only 3% of homicides in which Blacks shoot and kill White victims are ruled justifiable under SYG laws (Roman & Downey, 2012). In short, only by ignoring the actual facts (or by being oblivious to them) can someone say that race does not affect the justice system; it does. End of story.
Having refuted the baseless claims that neither politics nor race affect the criminal justice system, I want to turn my attention to the Trayvon Martin killing. Strictly legally speaking (i.e., from a purely procedural justice point of view), the Zimmerman verdict was the right outcome. The prosecution produced very little evidence to sustain a guilty verdict on any homicide charge in light of the burden of proof of “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This burden is already a high one, but the concept of “reasonable doubt” is widened (perhaps exponentially so) when the SYG law comes into play. As law professor Dan Markel (2013) pointed out in a PrawfsBlawg posting the morning after the verdict, “there was nothing provably unlawful about Zimmerman’s following Martin, and there’s also no evidence about who was the aggressor, which is a distinct and critical aspect to whether one forfeits one’s privilege of self-defense” (para. 2). Of course, if Trayvon Martin had lived to tell his side of the story, the verdict may have been different. But the fact is that the legal standard of proof demands an acquittal when there is “reason to doubt” the defendant’s guilt. SYG laws create a wide berth for finding reasons to doubt. And there’s the real rub with this sad case. The outcome is “fair” and “just” if one views justice from a process standpoint; it’s procedural justice in action in exactly the same way that the O.J. Simpson acquittals on double homicide charges were procedurally just. But this narrow view of justice does not satisfy those of us who politics cause us to believe in broader justice principles.
As David Schraub (2013) poignantly stated today, “Lay people may not know the formal definition of ‘reasonable doubt,’ but as lawyers we certainly should know that the formal definition often bears little in common with what actually gets people convicted. The problem with citing our highest ideals is that it seems only certain people with certain victims get access to them” (para. 3). Our criminal justice system places procedural justice—fair processes—above all other philosophical forms of justice, primarily because it is the only conceptualization of justice that the judicial process can come close to insuring (at least most of the time). But that type of “justice” seems woefully unsatisfying for those of us who seek social justice. We yearn for a justice system that is not racially-biased (since the one we have clearly is). And we yearn for outcomes that are “just” insofar as we hope for verdicts that lead to punishment for a man who shoots an unarmed teenager whom he profiled and followed on account of his race.
Baldus, D. C., Pulaski, C., & Woodworth, G. (1983). Comparative review of death sentences: An empirical study of the Georgia experience. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 74(3), 661-753.
Baldus, D. C., Woodworth, G., Zukerman, D., Wiener, N. A., & Broffitt, B. (1998). Race discrimination and the death penalty in the post-Furman era: An empirical and legal overview with preliminary findings from Philadelphia. Cornell Law Review, 83, 1638-1770.
Halper, K. (2013, June 11). “Stand your ground” law helps white defendants a lot more than black ones. Salon. Retrieved from http://www.salon.com/2013/06/11/stand_your_ground_law_helps_white_defendants_a_lot_more_than_black_ones/