Monday, July 15, 2013

Politics and Justice

Trayvon Martin makes his purchase minutes before his death.

From the start, I have felt that the Trayvon Martin–George Zimmerman matter was being made into much more than it was.

Please don't misunderstand me. I am not being flippant. A young man is dead, and that is a terrible thing — on several levels.

But legally the prosecution had no case. The whole thing was driven by politics.

What it is is a situation in which things rapidly got out of hand. That happens sometimes, usually because people are human. They are flawed. And they let matters get the best of them sometimes. That is sad.

But anyone who thinks George Zimmerman is racist either is having a knee–jerk reaction or must know something that no one else knows. The FBI, which operates under the Department of Justice, investigated Zimmerman following the shooting and found no evidence to support the claim that he was a racist.

The only racial epithet that apparently was used that night was when the victim said he was being followed by a "creepy–ass cracker." But he did not call the defendant that. He used that language in a phone conversation with a friend.

No testimony suggested that racial language played any role in the shooting.

No one — outside of the two people who were directly involved, and one, of course, is deceased — will ever know the whole truth about what happened that rainy night in February 2012. But I think a reasonable guess can be made based on even a casual understanding of what most people are likely to do under certain conditions.

According to Zimmerman's statements, he was in his vehicle running some personal errands when he observed Martin walking inside the gated community where he was a volunteer neighborhood watchman. He called the police to report observing an individual who was behaving suspiciously. Zimmerman said Martin, whom he did not recognize, had been walking behind the homes, not on the street or sidewalk.

It's a judgment call whether Martin's actions were suspicious. The police who were called to the scene after Martin was shot reported finding no evidence of anything like burglary and found no evidence of stolen property on Martin's body.

But Zimmerman knew there had been many break–ins of late. It's reasonable to believe his senses were on heightened alert so when he saw Martin, he called non–emergency police to report what he had seen. During that conversation, he said Martin approached his vehicle "to check me out." He said he rolled up his window because he did not want a confrontation with Martin.

At that point, Martin apparently ran away from the vehicle, and Zimmerman told the dispatcher he was following. The dispatcher told him he didn't need to do that. Zimmerman said he was returning to his vehicle; that is when he was confronted by Martin, and that is when the fight began.

And in the course of that fight, as nearly everyone must know by now, Martin was fatally wounded.

Zimmerman never denied shooting Martin, but he claimed he did so in self–defense. In such a case, it doesn't matter if the defendant sustained life–threatening injuries. During my career as a reporter, I covered enough trials and spoke with enough lawyers to know that, if someone claims to have been in fear for his/her safety and uses deadly force against his/her attacker — and if the jury believes that he/she believed that he/she was in danger — it was self–defense.

I understand the frustration of those who feel Zimmerman's acquittal fell short of being justice for Trayvon. But that is the thing, you see.

Justice was done. Martin's side was presented by the prosecution to a jury in an open court. Zimmerman was permitted legal defense, as any person who is charged with a crime in America is entitled to have. A jury that was approved by both the prosecution and the defense listened to the testimony, observed the evidence and rendered its verdict.

Anyone who thinks justice was not done has a skewed view of what justice really is.

"Justice" is having a fair trial. Does anyone think the trial was not fair? If so, speak now and be prepared to defend your conclusion with facts, not emotion.

"Justice" is having the opportunity to present your case to a jury — ideally, one that is made up of residents of the area who know neither the victim nor the accused and have nothing to gain or lose by their verdict. Does anyone have proof that this jury did not act in good faith?

"Justice" is the promise that, if you are accused of a crime, you will have your day in court, or, if you are the victim of a crime, your accusations will be heard. It is not a promise that your side will win.

The founders of this nation had experienced judicial systems that did not have things like open courts and trials by juries, prohibitions against things like double jeopardy and concepts like innocent until proven guilty. They knew that freedom would be a hollow claim without a judicial system that protected the rights of all the citizens.

Sure, there was a time in America's history when the judicial system fell far short of that lofty goal. During the time when slavery was legal in this country, blacks had no legal rights. For a long time, women had few, if any, legal rights. Even after many of those laws were changed or repealed outright, some things didn't change right away.

And there have always been times, from the earliest days of the republic to the present day, when guilty people went free and innocent people went to prison. That's the price we pay for safeguarding everyone's rights — or, at least, trying to.

Slowly but surely, the flaws in the judicial system are being corrected. It is not perfect. It will never be perfect — because laws are written by humans, and trials are conducted by humans. But it is the best system man has devised for administering justice.

I have seen graphics popping up on Facebook that complain about the verdict using totally irrelevant points — and, in the process, showing a shocking absence of understanding of how the law works.

For example ...

I've seen graphics that imply that miscarriage of justice is a fact of life in Florida. A similar case involving a black woman who supposedly fired a warning shot and wound up getting jail time is frequently cited as proof of the racism within the system — as if the two cases had the same set of facts, the same attorneys and the same jurors.

Well, let's look at the facts.

Marissa Alexander was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing what she called a "warning shot" into a wall during a confrontation with her abusive former spouse. Alexander had gone to her ex–husband's home to retrieve some belongings, believing he wasn't home, but he was and they got into a fight. When the argument became heated, Alexander went out to her car, got the gun that was there, returned to the house and fired a shot into the wall.

Alexander was offered several plea bargains, including a three–year sentence and then a probational sentence with time served, but she decided to proceed with a stand–your–ground defense.

The jury in her trial decided that the shot was not fired in self–defense and convicted her of aggravated assault. This triggered provisions of the state's "10–20–Life" law, which set mandatory minimum sentences for crimes committed with firearms.

Under that law, any crime committed with a gun receives a minimum of a 10–year sentence. If the gun is fired during the crime, that receives a 20–year sentence. And if anyone is injured or killed, the sentence is 25 years–to–life.

As someone who has covered many trials, I can tell you that each case is unique. All that those cases have in common, aside from the racial aspect, is the law, which is the same for everyone.

Well, not quite. Does the name Angela Corey ring a bell? It should. She's the state attorney in Florida's Fourth Judicial Circuit Court. She was in charge of the investigations and prosecutions in both the George Zimmerman and Marissa Alexander cases, and she defended how both were prosecuted.

Different sets of facts, different juries, different interpretations of "stand your ground."

Along the same line of thought, I have seen a graphic that asserts that Florida stole the 2000 election for George W. Bush. It's irrelevant to the point of law, of course — unless one is making an argument for the elimination of the Electoral College, and that is an entirely unrelated issue — but, as long as it is being brought up, Florida voted for Barack Obama in the last two presidential elections.

The same graphic asserts that Florida is where "kids can be murdered without question."

"Murder" is a legal term. Unless a court has convicted an individual of a murder charge, there has been no murder.

In the Zimmerman case, the jury concluded that no murder had taken place. It's true that someone died, but the jury believed Zimmerman was in fear for his life and did what he had to do to protect himself.

Those who protest the verdict distort things by labeling Zimmerman a child killer.

The "child" in this case was no toddler. He was less than a year from being old enough to enlist in the Army if he had so chosen, and he was four inches taller than Zimmerman. Technically, he may have been a child, but physically, anyone who saw him, especially on a dark and rainy night, would not say he was one.

It was clear to me — from the persistent media outcry that lifted the case from local to national to the president sticking his nose into it — that it was politicized.

And politics has no place in a courtroom.

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