Arm Chair Jurors

If the glove doesn't fit, you must acquit

The nation is engrossed by the 1995 OJ Simpson trial

I started teaching at UMF in the Fall of 1995, and one memory from my first year was letting my class talk me into going to the student center to watch the October verdict of the OJ Simpson trial.    When the “not guilty” verdict was announced, the student snack bar erupted.   Some students showed raw anger, enraged by what they saw as an unfair verdict.   A few were crying.   Most were shaking their head, looking disgusted.  A smaller number cheered.    I was bemused – there are murders and trials every day, it’s a bit bizarre that people would emotionally invest in one celebrity judicial process.

I have no clue if OJ Simpson killed anyone.   Clearly the media portrayed it in a way that caused most people to think he did, and if I had to bet I’d say I suspect he actually was the murderer.   He did lose a civil case, after all.   But the burden of proof is lower for a civil case; it’s not supposed to be easy to convict someone of murder.    As the old saying goes, better that 10 guilty escape punishment than one innocent suffer.

But I don’t know.  I didn’t have access to all the documents, deliberations and information the Jury had.  I didn’t have to determine if there was enough doubt to spare him from severe punishment.   In short, I don’t want to be an arm chair juror.   We have a process in the US that plays itself out, I respect that process.

It could be that the process is flawed – the wealthy can hire the best lawyers.  Simpson could get guys like Johnnie Cochran, Alan Dershowitz and F. Lee Bailey, while the poor may get a half hearted effort from a court appointed attorney.   But if that’s the case, then fix the process, don’t question the results of a given trial.   So to me, Simpson is not guilty – that was the result of our judicial process.

Fast forward to 2013 and the trial of George Zimmerman:

zimmerman

Zimmerman was acquitted of both murder and manslaughter in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a case that made the national headlines as a supposed race based murder.   As with the Simpson trial nearly two decades ago, there is no way I can know whether or not a guilty plea would have been proper.  I am far less informed than the jurors.   Even people who have followed this case lack detailed knowledge.

So then, as now, I choose to simply accept that the jury of Zimmerman’s peers looked at the evidence and concluded there was not enough to convict him of a crime.  We have a nation of laws, and trial by jury is a foundation of our legal system.    That doesn’t mean we should not look for flaws and try to legally address them.  But it does mean that regardless of our personal interpretation of the media coverage of an event, we don’t know.

As arm chair jurors people can insist “he was guilty,” just like arm chair quarterbacks can yell “you should have passed the ball” when the quarterback runs.  Ultimately, though, I’d rather have trial by jury with legal protections than to have guilt determined by public opinion.   George Zimmerman, like O J Simpson, was acquitted of a crime by a jury of his peers.  I respect that result.

 

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  1. #1 by lbwoodgate on July 15, 2013 - 13:23

    As usual Scott you make a cogent point and I don’t disagree with the premise of your argument. But I’m not sure we can ever have a jury that doesn’t invest some personal feelings into their decision. I have sat on a couple of juries and have seen how circumstantial evidence is often allowed to dominate the views of jurors. I can’t help but wonder if the 6 women who sat on Zimmerman’s jury (and I know one was black with several children) didn’t reflect more on the view of him defending himself against Martin, who was portrayed in a negative manner that only Zimmerman was able to present. Martin is not here to give his side of the story.

    I agree that the law as it is written would have prevented Zimmerman from being convicted of 2nd degree murder but Martin’s death should have been viewed as a wrongful death since 1. he had no criminal past, 2. he had no deadly weapon on him, and 3. he was likely as fearful of Zimmerman as Zimmerman was of him. Martin’s “preemptive” move on Zimmerman could have been a defensive tactic. Martin after all, based on testimonies, never really knew Zimmerman’s role as a neighborhood watch. To him he was just another white guy tracking him like so many black guys have experienced before.

    Had Zimmerman made his status clear to Martin and remained in his vehicle as he was told to by the police dispatcher, Martin would have never come after him. The police were on their way. Records show Zimmerman shot Martin at 7:15pm. The police were on the scene at 7:17pm. Zimmerman couldn’t constrain himself two more minutes from intimidating someone who who doing nothing more than walking back to his home.

    But in the end, your point is valid. The jury made the call the felt was right with what they had and we have to live with that.

  2. #2 by lee1978 on July 15, 2013 - 17:15

    The jury did what they felt was right. Living with it as the mother of young black men is a lot harder. I worry that my 17 y/o son–a son who volunteers at a homeless shelter, who works in our church nursery and who has a part time job helping troubled youth, could someday be a Traevon. Because he is all those good things and also a strong young black man. This will continue to be seen as a threat until we somehow change something fundamental in the way our white majority (of which i am) typically view black men. So when my son dresses in the way of teen boys and leaves to go skateboarding, I worry. When he wears a hoodie, I worry. And I worry in ways that my friends whose teens are white don’t have to worry. For me, the only thing this jury decision did was show how far we have yet to go before we have a true measure of racial equality.

  3. #3 by thenewamericanlondoner on July 15, 2013 - 17:55

    It’s rare that I find this with your posts, Scott, but this just leaves me with a sour taste in my mouth. It strikes me as dangerously passive, especially a phrase like “simply accept”. Your detachment unnerves me.

    The comparison is not nearly like for like. OJ Simpson was a man who was accused of killing his ex-wife. He was filmed and broadcast all over America trying to escape from the law in a white truck in realtime. The case became bogged down in the baggage of race relations, but there was certainly nothing that should have initiated a race debate in the case per se.

    From the beginning, the Trayvor Martin case has been about racial profiling. Martin died for essentially the same reason that Jean Charles de Menezes did, because of the color of his skin. Would Zimmerman have done the same to a white non-hoodie attired teenager? Based on his recorded comments, no.

    Can you refute the arguments made in this article about the “salient facts”?

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jul/14/open-season-black-boys-verdict

    This acceptance and obedience of unjust verdicts that provide procedural justice may have worked for Socrates for hundreds of years of legacy, but it won’t wash anymore. We need to stop “simply accepting” and start questioning more, before the laws of our country allow this to happen again. And again. And again.

    • #4 by Scott Erb on July 18, 2013 - 11:21

      But it’s not that easy. A jury doesn’t consider all “salient facts,” it has a legal obligation to look at the evidence, the arguments of both sides, and determine the proper verdict. In this case it appears the prosecution over reached and the evidence did not support a guilty plea. Can we make the jury system better, can we improve what kind of evidence is allowed to make for more “just” results? Perhaps – but the limits are there to protect the innocent. I am not opposed to judicial reform, but to me this is a legal case (hence decided on purely legal terms) not a moral case, at least not in the court room.

      • #5 by thenewamericanlondoner on July 19, 2013 - 14:36

        What… you don’t think it’s something morally reprehensible that we have and maintain a system that allows things like this to happen and volunteer citizen patrols to have this much power?

  4. #6 by Snoring Dog Studio on July 16, 2013 - 07:13

    I don’t respect the judgement of this jury. Absolutely not. And I don’t appreciate my views being dismissed as those that arise out of an armchair. I thoroughly agree with NewAmericanLondoner. This case IS about racial profiling. This case, more than ever, IS about recognizing the racial and racist overtones in juries. We need to stop sitting back and accepting that “a jury of peers” makes valid and just decisions. These were not Trayvor’s peers. This trial took place against a background of racism and racist laws that allow profiling and vigilante justice. Sit by and accept that this was a just verdict? Hell no. Enough is enough.

  5. #7 by Alan Scott on July 16, 2013 - 20:03

    I keep wondering what trial I watched, what facts I perceived before, during, and after the trial., Obviously everyone here is talking about a different Zimmerman trial. I suppose if I had seen the one you guys did, I would agree.

    I believe that Zimmerman was the one who had his civil rights infringed on. Mr. Dershowitz seems to think so.

  6. #8 by Scott Erb on July 18, 2013 - 09:23

    I understand and appreciate the logic and thinking behind those who disagree with me or dislike how I worded it. One thing to consider – the views of President Carter: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/president-jimmy-carter-jury-george-zimmerman-trial-made-decision-article-1.1401499

    As he notes, this is a legal question, not a moral question, and the jury had to act based on the legal arguments presented, not the broader issue of profiling and other admittedly disturbing aspects of the case.

    • #9 by thenewamericanlondoner on July 19, 2013 - 14:40

      Carter explains it pretty clearly, I’ll grant you. But I’m also glad that you said, “how I worded it.” I don’t think that if we’re clearly engaged with the world around us that there is much that we should “simply accept,” least of all this.

  7. #10 by Titfortat on July 23, 2013 - 09:06

    The prosecution did a shitty job. The verdict the jury gave was the right one considering how the prosecution presented their case. Did Zimmerman profile Martin, in my mind, you bet. In fact I would give you odds on that bet. The case is definitely about race, anyone who thinks otherwise should just reverse the color and imagine what would have happened. If Zimmerman was black I bet money(and I would give you odds on that bet) he would be sitting in a jail cell doing 20 to life.

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