The killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, as well as the trial and acquittal of Zimmerman have set this country on fire. There are many implications and many causes and contributing factors being discussed in a civilized manner, or shouted with extreme vitriol.
Today, I want to look at one aspect of Zimmerman’s acquittal. Many people are asking how… how could a jury of six people have come to the unanimous conclusion that George Zimmerman had shot Trayvon Martin as an act of self-defense.
It’s somewhat clear that some of the jurors went into the trial with that opinion. This was not properly vetted by the prosecutors. But that still doesn’t explain the outcome.
One juror (so far) went straight to video – Anderson Cooper, that is. She said, among other juicy tidbits of insight, that the jurors looked really hard into the law, and just couldn’t find a way to convict Zimmerman, even on manslaughter charges.
From this juror’s description of the deliberations, it’s clear to me that legalism has not only reared its ugly head, but it has taken over the thinking of the average American. What do I mean by legalism? Dictionary.com gives this definition of legalism, which applies here: “strict adherence, or the principle of strict adherence, to law or prescription, especially to the letter rather than the spirit (my emphasis).”
This most likely comes from the constant flood of courtroom dramas on TV. Most of these shows, and even at least one Shakespeare play, feature some tiny technicality – and it’s usually employed by the “good guys.” The good guys are the heroes for either freeing an innocent defendant where there is circumstantial evidence against him, or jailing a guilty defendant who has a great alibi. These would both be good things, of course, but the way this is accomplished in these shows glorifies nitpicking and subverts the intent of the law.
What’s the intent of the law? Generally, “Don’t hurt people.” That’s it. End of story. That means, don’t kill, don’t beat up, don’t steal, don’t kidnap, don’t embezzle, don’t deprive people of their rights, don’t poison, etc., etc., etc.
But it has become an acceptable defense to say, “Well, the law allows us an average of 30 insect fragments per 100 grams of peanut butter, and our average is 29.95, so legally, we’re not hurting anybody.” At the moment that Zimmerman shot Martin, Zimmerman was afraid. If you look at that moment, legalistically, that fear was justification to shoot. It didn’t matter that Zimmerman had caused the entire scene to take place. It didn’t matter that he ignored police instructions to stand down. It didn’t matter that he had pursued and confronted an innocent teenager for no reason.
Ironically (or maybe not) if Trayvon Martin had been carrying a gun, and George Zimmerman had followed him, chased him, and approached him belligerently (just like he did), Martin would have been justifiably in fear for his life and could have shot Zimmerman. Of course, there’s the whole race issue, but this is the way the law reads.
If juries (and judges) would pay more attention to the spirit or intent of the law, and less attention to nitpicking little details that lawmakers couldn’t possibly have anticipated, we might actually approach something resembling a just society.
Tom Rossi is a commentator on politics and social issues. He is a Ph.D. student in International Sustainable Development, concentrating in natural resource and economic policy. Tom greatly enjoys a hearty debate, especially over a hearty pint of Guinness.