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 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.