Tuesday, July 16, 2013

George Zimmerman and Blackstone's formulation

On October 3rd, 1995, my 9th grade Geometry teacher dialed the radio in to the reading of the OJ Simpson verdict.  This was a case that captivated the nation, scratching the still fresh racial wounds centuries in the making.  Everyone had a strong opinion, and I found myself thinking that it was obvious that he was guilty.  How else did he get her blood in his car?  Why else would he run from the police?  He certainly had motive and opportunity.  When the verdict of "Not Guilty" rung through my ears, I was stunned.  How could anyone believe he was not guilty, after what had been presented?  But there were droves of people who believed he was innocent, and that I was a fool for believing him guilty with the same evidence laid out before them.

Flash forward to this past week.  The nation again found itself gripped in a trial laced with racial undertones.  George Zimmerman had undeniably shot young Trayvon Martin, a young black man he had believed to be a neighborhood thief.  But he claimed to have done it in self defense.  Again, I lined up the facts of the case, and could only conclude the verdict was correct.  If he had thrown the first punch, he was guilty as sin... if Trayvon had... then his claim of self defense was valid.  The prosecution had done very little to prove who had done that.  They should have looked for autopsy evidence that Zimmerman had struck martin with a punch, but they couldn't.  If he had made up his story on the spot, it certainly fit well with the physical evidence and witness testimony... so it seemed plausible.  When Zimmerman was set free, I was not surprised at all.  However, many across the nation rose to protest that an injustice had been done.  Injustice.

How is our justice system supposed to function here?  I think in both these trials, reasonable people could look at the body of evidence, and come to very different conclusions.  Regardless of what horrible thing has happened, we must be sure of ourselves when we reach a verdict.  We must not compound one injustice with another.  It got me thinking to Sir William Blackstone, who in 1765 stated "It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer".  This is fundamental to how we must approach justice.  We convene juries that must reach a unanimous decision, because if reasonable people can disagree about the innocence of a person, then only injustice can result from an arbitrary result.  The benefit of doubt must lie with the accused.

George Zimmerman is a free man today.  It may be because he truly acted in self defense.  It may just be because the prosecution couldn't prove beyond a reasonable doubt otherwise.  The same could have been said for OJ Simpson.  And either result strengthens my faith in our criminal justice system.  We live under the rule of law, where personal biases of an individual are trumped by collective certainty in the outcome of a trial.  And for that, I am thankful.

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