Let me start by saying something that will probably be wildly unpopular here:
Last night the jury in the George Zimmerman case reached the correct legal verdict under Florida law.
It was the correct verdict--not a just or good or fair one.
It was a legal verdict--not a moral, ethical or responsible one.
And it was under Florida law--not the laws of a different or more enlightened state.
There are very real and terrible injustices in our legal system that were exposed last night. In fact, accepting that this was the correct legal verdict under Florida law will actually help us identify and fight against the greater systemic injustices that have made this verdict possible. If we are serious about making sure that future Trayvon Martins cannot be shot and killed with impunity by future George Zimmermans then we have to come to grips with the fact the verdict was correct under current Florida law so that we can push for changes where they really need to be made.
Now for just a moment, forget about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. Let's imagine a scenario with you and me. You can be you and you can imagine me to be of any race, gender, nationality, size and religion you would like.
You and I are standing outside in a public park. Inside my jacket I've got a handgun for which I have a permit. You don't know this. I make a comment about your shoes. Maybe your hair cut. Another nasty comment about your mother. You get upset. You try and walk away. I follow you. I push you to make you stop. I make a few more insults. And then, because I hate you so much I throw a punch at you. You duck out of the way and now, in defense of yourself, you rush me and tackle me to the ground. Turns out I'm mostly bark with no bite and though I try to fight back you are kind of kicking my ass. You're haven't seriously injured me so far. In fact, in your mind you just want to teach me a good lesson and leave. I'm not afraid for my life. But after getting hit in the nose I start to be afraid you might seriously mess up my face and hurt me. I pull the gun out of my jacket and shoot you in the chest at point blank range. You die.
Under current Florida law I have not committed manslaughter or murder. I feared serious bodily harm and used disproportionate force in self-defense. This is perfectly legal. And given that you are dead and no one saw me throw the first punch, there is no evidence I committed some kind of assault, aggravated or otherwise. No prosecutor will be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that I have committed ANY crime.
Now THAT is something that should really piss you off. I know it pisses me off. And it is NOT the law in every state. One commentator on CNN last night pointed out that in New York, for example, I would definitely be guilty of manslaughter in the case above given the same facts. Why? Because the law there forbids the use of disproportionate force in self-defense, particularly lethal force when my life isn't in danger. In more colloquial terms, under NY law and the laws of many states "you can't bring a gun to a fistfight." If you do and you use it, you're guilty of manslaughter. I might also be guilty of breaking several gun laws. In other words--I am NOT going to walk away free of any legal responsibility.
So here is the first point I want to make--we need to change laws. In many states the laws need to be changed to make sure those who escalate an altercation into something deadly can be held responsible for that escalation. If we don't push for changes to the law in Florida and other similar states, this same kind of total B.S. can happen over and over again. The correct legal verdict is not necessarily a good or just verdict when the law itself is unjust.
Now on to the other reason I and so many others are troubled and deeply upset by this case: Race matters. All of us here know that if George Zimmerman were a black man living in a predominantly black neighborhood and Trayvon Martin were a white teenage boy walking through, pursued and followed by Zimmerman and ended up being shot by Zimmerman that Zimmerman would have definitely been arrested that very night. He would have been charged without public outcry. And he most likely would have been convicted given the exact same set of facts put into evidence. Anyone who denies this is either "color-blind" like Stephen Colbert or hopelessly naive.
What should be truly upsetting, then, is that a black George Zimmerman would most likely have been found GUILTY under Florida law. This would have been an incorrect verdict given the same set of facts. But sadly there would have been no outcry. No media attention. No legal defense fund for that George Zimmerman. And he would be in jail today.
This, then, brings me to the next injustice we really need to fight--the disproportionate prosecution and conviction of minority and poor defendants. Tens of thousands of minority and poor defendants with poor legal representation are convicted on way less evidence than was amassed against George Zimmerman every year.
One of the reasons George Zimmerman is free today is that he had two very good lawyers (stupid knock-knock jokes notwithstanding). They presented a better case than the prosecution. One of them even remarked at one point that the prosecutors "seem to think they're up against a young public defender". The case they put on certainly demonstrates that. It was haphazard. Prosecution witnesses on more than one occasion ended up putting in evidence that was great for the defense. They never even touched on the manslaughter charges. They didn't come close to proving second degree murder and given the evidence they had to work with probably should not have even made that their charge. The side with better representation won this case.
To me, this speaks of a very real need in this country to find some way to ensure more equal legal representation across the entirety of the justice system. If you're poor (and especially if you're a minority) and you can't afford your own attorney you are most likely going to be convicted. And this isn't to say there aren't very good public defenders out there--but they have a huge case load and cannot devote the needed time to each case. Do you think George Zimmerman's lawyers had twenty other cases they were working on during this trial? Hell no they didn't.
In closing, I believe that last night's verdict was legally correct under current Florida law. This makes me angry for two reasons. First, the law allows disproportionate use of force in self-defense regardless of who starts a confrontation and it should not. Second, it makes me furious at the thousands of OTHER verdicts that are legally incorrect that are made against minority and poor defendants because their own lawyers are incapable of showing that the "beyond a reasonable doubt" burden has not been met. These are the injustices we should focus on moving forward to create a more just legal system and society.