In the murder trial of George Zimmerman, the prosecution is trying to paint him as a racist, gun-happy, vigilante, zealot, who stalked Trayvon Martin and murdered him. I’ll be the first to admit it: I don’t know the truth about what happened that night. Neither have I been given access to all the evidence that will come forward. Maybe the prosecution is correct about all of this. I don’t know.
But see, that’s just the thing: No one else does either, if the first few prosecution witnesses are to be believed.
From the pool of living, breathing humanity, only Mr. Zimmerman knows what happened. He’s claiming self-defense. By definition, since he’s the only one alive who really knows, that means there is no one who is in a position to contradict him, or prove him wrong, or to expose his lie.
Apparently, the jury will hear all about how Zimmerman called 911 on several other occasions involving suspicious persons who were black. Okay. Maybe, on a stretch, that might point to some racism. But what it doesn’t do is prove that the man is lying when he says he shot to defend himself. The fact that he may not like black folks doesn’t mean Trayvon wasn’t bouncing his head off the curb.
Here’s the issue: Our criminal justice system is not about acting on the objective truth surrounding any particular crime. It simply isn’t, and we ought to disabuse ourselves of that notion. Instead, our criminal justice system is designed to act only upon what may be proved regarding any particular crime.
In an imperfect world, in which none of the officers of the court are all-knowing, we can’t operate based on the transcendental truth of what really happened. We must confine ourselves to what we can prove. Happily, those two often coincide, but sometimes proof is lacking.
Now, if we can’t prove guilt, that doesn’t mean the defendant is innocent: In fact, he may really have done the deed. But when we can’t prove it beyond a reasonable doubt, we return a verdict of “Not Guilty.” In our system, I stress, that doesn’t mean we think the guy is pure as the driven snow. It simply means the prosecution was unable to make its case. And we set that bar very high on purpose. It is a defense against tyranny.
The Biblical law demanded of Israel that no one be convicted of a crime unless his guilt was confirmed in the mouth of two or more witnesses (see Deuteronomy 19:15.) This wound up being a means of protection for individual citizens. One guy couldn’t make up a story and have the accusation stick against his neighbor. If a criminal trial really came down to “he said, she said,” then the thing to do was call it a wash and go home, while reminding each other that God is watching and will judge, perfectly. Does that mean the guilty went free sometimes? Probably so. But the innocent rarely got wrongly convicted, and it is that precise threat that we need to protect against, even in our modern society.
Let’s grant the prosecution’s entire case in the Zimmerman trial. Let’s say he really is a racist who felt extra tough when he was carrying a gun. Let’s say it really was unreasonable for him to follow Trayvon Martin that night. Let’s say Trayvon had not a malicious bone in his body. Let’s say that at some point, in the rain, after calling cops to the scene, Zimmerman decided to shoot the young man and kill him. That’s what he did. Let’s grant it all.
It still boils down to this: not much of this, especially not the really important parts of it, can be proven. Already, the prosecution has had to admit that it has no witness who actually saw what happened. Their star witness was a barely coherent young woman who says she was on the phone with Trayvon until right before the confrontation between the two men became violent. She is in no position (from what I’ve heard) to testify about who attacked whom. However, even if the prosecution found an eye-witness, righteousness really demands they find another one to go with him/her.
But then, someone protests, a murderer would go free, based on his lie of self-defense! Yes, that’s what would happen. He’ll be free, like O.J. Simpson was freed. He’ll be free for a while. And then eventually he will meet up with a Judge who really does know the exact truth of what went down, and can, in fact, see into Zimmerman’s heart. Justice really will be done, even if we can’t quite get it right here and now.
When you’re the victim of the crime, or someone you love is, you want to see justice done. Like yesterday. When you’re the victim, a case like the one I’m making here sounds like ridiculous twaddle. I know that. That’s why, when the sun is shining and we’re all basically okay, that’s the time to sort this out. We want a system that errs on the side of protecting the innocent man who is falsely accused, rather than on the side of hurt and angered parties who demand swift retribution, and for whom the question of real guilt or innocence may take a back seat to the desire to see someone pay.
Maybe the Zimmerman prosecution is right. If so, I really hope they’re able to scare up a couple witnesses who can tell us all what happened. Who attacked whom, when it came down to it? But if they’re wrong, it would be the opposite of justice to sacrifice a man to the mob that’s calling for blood.
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