Jury selection is underway in one of the most celebrated cases of the year. The murder trial of George Zimmerman is about to begin in a Florida courtroom where media and throngs of supporters have arrived for what is likely to be a month-long proceeding filled with high emotion and conflicting evidence, though most in the legal community believe the prosecution has a tough row to hoe and that Zimmerman’s self-defense claim is likely to prevail.
Those who see a strong defense case, like me, know that jury selection will make all the difference. Jurors who feel angry that Trayvon Martin was profiled by Zimmerman won’t care very much that the law in Florida allows people to use deadly force in self-defense, even if the force used against them is not lethal. A person need only face serious bodily harm to be justified in the use of lethal force. The objective medical evidence shows that Zimmerman’s injuries are consistent with serious bodily harm but jurors who understand the anger that flows when a young black man is profiled will also see justification in Martin’s rageful response to being followed home after an innocent trip to a local store for a box of Skittles.
Whatever the jurors believe, it is worth noting the role of media in fanning the flames of protests in the aftermath of the crime; causing what many say is the unfair, politicized prosecution of George Zimmerman for murder. At a minimum, the media should be held to account for its hypocrisy in enabling protestors to coerce a prosecution in Zimmerman’s case, while ignoring or condemning protestors who demand prosecutions in other types of cases.
For example, when Bill O’Reilly uses his television show to criticize prosecutors who refuse to file tough charges against predatory child sex offenders, some people (especially on the left) call him a fascist with “witchhunt” tendencies. But when anti-racism activists did the same thing to pressure Florida Special Prosecutor Angela Corey to file murder charges against George Zimmerman, they got front-page supportive news coverage and accolades from some of the SAME people who criticize O’Reilly.
Drawing the line between mob justice and legitimate democracy in action isn’t easy, but one thing seems obvious. Standing up for kids doesn’t win political points for anyone because kids don’t vote, and they don’t have any money. Standing up for insufficient prosecutorial efforts against racist violence has obvious political implications, which doesn’t make it wrong – but the fact that there are votes at stake matters.
Only a cool-headed apolitical application of law to the facts should determine whether an individual is charged with a crime, especially when the punishment could be life behind bars. If politics and strong emotions ruled the day, slavery would still be legal and “Scottsboro Boys” cases would be commonplace.
Prosecutorial overcharging is dangerous not only because it isn’t fair, but also because it’s akin to vigilantism. If a prosecutor engages in vigilante activity, the public will, too.
It also opens the prosecutor up to fierce criticism for the next case that has similar facts but involves different “types” of individuals. For example, what if instead of a security guard looking out for suspicious activity, Zimmerman had been a woman, suspicious of her husband when he didn’t come home after work. What if she found him leaving a barroom with another woman and surreptitiously followed him down the sidewalk. What if he became furious when he saw her spying on him, so he knocked her to the ground and started punching her in the face, slamming her head into the sidewalk. What if she screamed for help, but nobody came, so she pulled out her pistol and shot the guy dead. Name one prosecutor who would file ANY charges against the woman, much less murder in the second degree.
How will DA Corey explain why a woman should walk free while George Zimmerman sits in prison?
There’s little doubt Trayvon Martin would be alive today had he not been the target of unfair suspicion for walking on a sidewalk. It’s ugly and incendiary to make any human being feel bad about being black. But it’s also true that being the target of suspicion does not justify physical violence. Assuming Martin responded to Zimmerman’s suspicion with violence, the prosecutor has a duty to recognize that just as a gunshot is excessive force to repel a punch, a punch is excessive force to repel a suspicious follower.
A prosecutor can take provocative behavior into account when assessing the context of an incident, but giving too much consideration to non-physical provocation opens the door to untold amounts of trouble when the next young man in Martin’s position feels disrespected and uses a weapon instead of a fist. By downplaying the significance of a physically violent reaction to a non-violent act of following, a prosecutor ties her own hands in future cases whenever an angry person responds with extreme force when they feel offended by words.
Free from intense emotion, there is an objective reality about what happened between Zimmerman and Martin and there is an objective legal lens through which the evidence should be assessed, though the prosecutor seems more interested in politics than truth, which she made exceedingly clear when she asked people to join her in prayer for Martin and his family. She also declared her intention to achieve justice only for Trayvon Martin, as if her ethical duty to do justice on behalf of the public interest, including the accused, was nonexistent.
Maybe the prosecutor in Zimmerman’s case needs to revisit the history books, and remind herself why John Adams is a celebrated lawyer precisely because he stood up against mob rule justice and defended British soldiers accused of murdering colonial protestors. Maybe she needs a refresher class in why our legal system was designed to resist angry emotions of even decent Americans, like those who demanded the blood of British soldiers. Maybe she simply forgot that the integrity of law itself is always more important than the next election.