Monday, July 15, 2013

George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin, and reasonable doubt

Posted By on 07.15.13 at 01:46 PM

In downtown Chicago yesterday, demonstrators protested the acquittal of George Zimmerman.
  • Alex Wroblewski/Sun-Times
  • In downtown Chicago yesterday, demonstrators protested the acquittal of George Zimmerman.
The acquittal of George Zimmerman Saturday "sends a message that it's okay to pursue, to hunt and to kill black men," Bernard Jakes, pastor of the West Point Missionary Baptist Church on South Cottage Grove, said at a news conference yesterday. "It says that black life is of no value."

"Yesterday, we watched the justice system fail miserably again," Father Michael Pfleger told his congregation at St. Sabina, in Auburn-Gresham.

But did it fail Saturday? A defendant is presumed innocent. To be found guilty, he must be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. "We all know the asshole's guilty" isn't enough. Should the jury have convicted Zimmerman in spite of the murky evidence to demonstrate how we value the lives of African-Americans?

Yesterday morning my wife and I visited a friend who's a prisoner in the Dixon Correctional Center. He's African-American, and from the south side. He believes that Zimmerman's racial bias led to Trayvon Martin's death. But he felt certain the jury had reached the right verdict—there was far too much doubt, he said, for Zimmerman to be convicted. The injustice was not that Zimmerman was acquitted, he told us, but that African-Americans are more likely to themselves be convicted on flimsy evidence, because of the racial prejudice of some judges and jurors.

I've spent much time in felony courtrooms as a reporter, and talked with many jurors and judges, and I suspect our friend is right. I'd add that while there's a greater bias against minority defendants, there's a bias all defendants face—a sentiment of many jurors and judges that "if he's not guilty, why was he charged?"

Acquittals in celebrated cases—O.J., Zimmerman—stand out in the public's memory. But the vast majority of defendants are convicted. And some of them are convicted because they don't overcome these biases against them, and because jurors and judges don't scrupulously adhere to the reasonable-doubt standard. It's difficult to combat this failure to abide by the standard because it operates covertly—often, without the triers of fact themselves aware that they're failing to follow it.

The reasonable-doubt standard is important for all of us, but especially for African-Americans, given that they face criminal charges at a much higher rate. The failure to follow it is a far more pervasive threat to African-Americans than the threat that Trayvon's death has caused us to focus on—black men being shot down with impunity.

Anger about the outcome of Zimmerman's case is understandable. Trayvon's death likely is a result of Zimmerman not affording Trayvon a presumption of innocence—that, and the fact that Zimmerman was carrying a loaded gun. "Stand Your Ground" and concealed-carry laws are dangerous, and I think they ought to be eliminated. But those are legislative matters. The jury did its job. Criticism that serves to undermine fidelity to the reasonable-doubt standard is, in the broader picture, counterproductive to justice.

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