Monday, July 15, 2013

Talking Into Thin Air

On February 26, 2012, George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin in the chest, killing him.

On April 11, 2012, Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder.

On July 13, 2013, a six-person jury found Zimmerman not guilty on all counts.

Today, I read an intriguing op-ed on, discussing whether the US justice system has failed African-Americans. It draws a connection between Atticus Finch's closing argument in To Kill A Mockingbird and the decision of the court in the Zimmerman case. Austin-Hillery's thesis is persuasive, because her research is sound, and her insights are worthwhile.

Reading her column, and scrolling through tweets and posts on Facebook over the last two days, I realized why the debate over the case has raged so viciously. Some praise the rule of law--"they had to acquit, given the evidence"--and others condemn the unfairness of Florida (and, indeed, more broadly, American) procedure--"and yet this woman gets 20 years!" And the two sides talk past each other, as is so often the case. They fail to realize that their conception of What Courts Do is different.

Many--Austin-Hillery among them--believe that the legal system has a responsibility to discover, implement, and enact justice. With Atticus Finch, they call for a morally/socially responsible judiciary, one that sees to the heart of cases and determines what is right. (The complexities surrounding that word are too great to contain in one blog post, perhaps, so we will leave it alone.) In their eyes, the 18th Circuit Court's response to Zimmerman's actions perpetuate a historical precedent of white prejudice in the legal system.

Others see America's justice system as interpretive, translating the laws created by legislature and enforcing them in individual cases. They expect a passive judiciary, neither imposing its will on other branches of government nor seeking anything more than a formulaic comparison of evidence and case to precedent and statute. In their eyes, the 18th Circuit Court's response to Zimmerman's actions was its only possible response.

The former group seeks a possibly unattainable ideal--the enacting of Real Justice. The latter group seeks a probably heartless result--the precise interpretation of the Law of the Land.

I don't know where I fall. Except this: we humans have major issues. We think ill of each other, we speak ill of each other, we hate each other, sometimes we kill each other. We may not be as violent as George Zimmerman, or as equipped for violence, but we enact emotional violence in our hearts every day--to that moron who just cut us off in traffic, to that terrible customer who sends back his entrée four times because it's not hot enough, to the colleague or coworker or classmate or friend or enemy who gossips about our personal shortcomings. Humankind is a mess. Expecting some kind of silver out of that dross--whether the silver of real justice or the silver of precise interpretation--may be an exercise in futility.

Now I'm depressed.

Long live careful consideration.


Katie said...

Great post. This is my favorite one yet.
I especially like the way you mentioned people talking past each other when it comes to politics. And also the potential issues with ever expecting to find justice or truth represented in the man-made systems all around us.

Marc said...

The problem here, as in so many other cases, is that the law itself is structured in a way that is inherently oppressive; following the letter of that law inevitably results in outcomes like the one in Zimmerman's trial.

I think human beings are basically good, but their priorities are often misplaced, especially in America. They scoff at the rules until the moment "I was just following the rules" becomes an acceptable excuse for behaving badly or for not facing difficult decisions. And certainly, the jury in this case was following the rules. It just goes to show that change cannot come from within the system: it will take the committed outrage of every person willing to stand up for what's right to effect the changes that need to happen.

Ian the Pontificator said...

"What's right".

Now there's a phrase...

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