Monday, July 15, 2013

A Foreign System

I always have been, and will continue to be, hesitant to take any greater meaning from one trial.  Anyone who has participated in litigation knows that the picture is skewed.  A key piece of evidence excluded.  An entire line of argument foreclosed.  The things you know, but can't prove...have no place in a courtroom.

It is a fine place to make decisions of fact, but a horrible means for closure.

I was not surprised by the Zimmerman verdict.  What concerned me was that the coverage imputed a predicted outcome that was discordant with the law.  I do not like it that Florida law allows a 28 year old armed man to confront a 17 year old unarmed kid and claim self-defense in the scuffle that results.  That's bad law.  Whatever safety some feel in the possession of a firearm is completely upended by such law.  Taken to its full extension, had Trayvon Martin had a gun, "self-defense" may have resulted in a shoot-out in the middle of The Retreat at Twin Lakes.  It fosters the mindset of "You are only safe as long as I allow you to be."

But the jury was not able to convict George Zimmerman for getting out of his car.  Even from a young age, we know that whomever "started it" is the culpable party.  Florida doesn't see it that way.

And maybe some of you don't want "getting out of your car" to be illegal.  Some may even call that "bad law".  It would hamstring Neighborhood Watch, putting the entire community at the mercy of police response times.  In places like Detroit, the police budgets have been cut back so far that they don't always respond to breaking and entering, so long as no one is in danger.  Do we want a society that gets out of the way of criminals?  Laws aren't written to say "You may confront XXX so long as they are up to no good, as decided by you, in the heat of the moment."  Rather, our laws attempt to create standards like "probable cause" and "reasonable suspicion" for which our law enforcement go through months of training to decipher. 

Even if we figured out a responsible law, it would be secondary to the tragedy of a 17 year old killed while walking home and no one being accountable for his death.  As so often repeated in the context of this trial, Trayvon Martin had a right to stand his ground.  He just didn't bring a gun.

In 2006-2007, I taught a law class for recently released prisoners at Our Daily Bread.  Never before had I seen in such stark contrast for those we may interact with every day who experience a completely different system of justice than we do.  Their interactions with police are more intrusive.  Their opportunities for fair evaluation of their case slim.  The inconvenience of their petty offenses to the system outweigh their right to freedom.  And more often than not, those who end up on the wrong side of this equation go to jail.  Not necessarily for anything that endangers any of us, but because the machinery is broken on their end of things and it is predisposed to putting them in chains.

It is an unquestionable tragedy that the verdict on Saturday increased the distance many feel between themselves and justice.  It is an unquestionable tragedy that the verdict on Saturday diminished faith and trust in our judicial system.  Because when you take those things away, the only remaining feelings are chaos, fear, and anger.

I will not propose any greater meaning in a trial applying a bad law to messy facts.  I will say that we should be striving for more conversation about race, justice, and that distance noted above.  It should be ok to ask "What role did race play in all of this?" without being shunned for playing "the race card".  We should accept that our experiences are not universal.  We should have empathy.

Reminder that we will be meeting for the Wordbones Book Club tonight, 6:30 p.m., at Centennial Lake, pavilion H.  Please let me know in the comments if you will be attending.  (Stay tuned to the Facebook page for any cancellations related to weather.)

Have a great Monday doing what you love!