By Ruth Marcus
WASHINGTON: Did the system work? Was justice served? We like to think of those questions as identical. After all, the point of a criminal justice system is to dispense justice. But with the acquittal of George Zimmerman on charges of murdering Trayvon Martin, the system worked yet justice fell short. This outcome is simultaneously sad but healthy — sad because a 17-year-old boy is dead and his killer walks free; healthy because the verdict seems justified as a matter of law.
There is an important place for emotion in criminal proceedings, both for mercy and for outrage. But the system cannot function if it consistently elevates emotion over rules.
Both sides, naturally, see the Zimmerman verdict through the lens of their own preconceptions. “This will confirm for many that the only problem with the New South is it occupies the same time and space as the Old South,” said NAACP President Benjamin Jealous, invoking the memory of 14-year-old Emmett Till, killed in 1955 after supposedly flirting with a white woman and his murderers acquitted. “Old South justice,” thundered Jesse Jackson.
This comparison is unfair. No doubt that race played a role in Martin’s death. Zimmerman likely would not have called the police about a white teenager — even a white teenager wearing a hoodie — walking back from the 7-Eleven.
But there is no evidence that race played a role in Zimmerman’s acquittal. If anything, the racial undertones worked against Zimmerman, increasing public pressure on prosecutors to bring the most serious and, in hindsight, difficult to support, charges against him.
Contrast the Zimmerman trial with that of Till’s murderers. The courtroom was segregated. No hotel would rent rooms to black observers. The local sheriff welcomed black spectators to the courtroom with what was described as a cheerful use of the vilest racial epithet. The New South is not perfect, but it is not the Old.
The overreaction from the left is mirrored by the overreaction from the right, and without the excuse of being swept away by emotion over a child’s unnecessary death. Conservative Roger L. Simon lamented on PJ Media that Zimmerman “will never live a normal life” and described the prosecution as “quite literally, the first American Stalinist ‘show trial.’ ”
That is, quite literally, deranged. Of course no decent person responsible for killing an unarmed teenager could “live a normal life.” And the entire point of “show trials” was that the outcome, unlike Zimmerman’s acquittal, was foreordained.
Which brings us back to the uncomfortable divide between the criminal justice system and justice itself. One way to understand that gap is to think of the episode as a video. The criminal justice system zooms in, and properly so, on one short segment, a snapshot in the larger narrative.
Whatever preceded the fight between the two men, the central question, as a matter of criminal law, was precisely what occurred in the immediate moments before Zimmerman fired the fatal shot. Zimmerman instigated the tragic chain of events, but legally that was not relevant. To convict Zimmerman of second-degree murder, prosecutors had to prove that he did something that he knew was “reasonably certain” to kill or seriously injure and acted with “ill will, hatred, spite or an evil intent.” Even for the lesser charge of manslaughter, they had to rebut his claim of self-defense, showing that he could not “reasonably believe” shooting Martin was “necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm.”
Justice takes the longer time frame. Zimmerman may not be legally responsible for Martin’s death but he remains morally culpable.
Another way to understand the divide is through the prism of legal rules, which may serve the broader ends of justice but produce unjust results in the short run. Thus the exclusionary rule for illegally seized evidence, meaning that some criminals go free because the constable has blundered.
Likewise, the law’s requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt for criminal convictions presumes tolerance for a certain amount of unjust results. We accept the bargain, in Blackstone’s formulation, that it is “better that ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent suffer.”
Zimmerman’s acquittal is not the end of this sad story. Because of the lower burden of proof, a civil lawsuit by Martin’s family would have a better chance of success. A federal prosecution on civil rights charges would be a mistake; the state trial failed to show adequate evidence of racial animus to sustain such a case.
In the end, society must accept: There is not always a perfect fit between a criminal justice system and justice.
Marcus is a Washington Post columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.