17 Jul 2013

When the law is a black and white case

Much of America continues to seethe quietly at the acquittal of George Zimmerman.

The first juror to speak publicly about the verdict told CNN that she thought his heart had been in the right place but that he made some bad decisions that night, should not have got out of the car to pursue the teenager Trayvon Martin and definitely feared for his life before pulling the trigger.

Although the lawyers kept telling us that race had nothing to do with case I just cannot believe that the same juror – a white woman- would have given the same shoulder shrugging explanation if the racial identities had been reversed.

The ease with which juries, white and black, convict young black men in this country is astonishing. More black men between the ages of 18 and 28 still go to prison than college. Furthermore had the identities been reversed you can bet that the National Rifle Association would have yelled that the crime could have been deterred if the victim had been armed.

I have heard no such cry from the NRA, even though the organization helped sponsor the Stand Your Ground Law in Florida in 2006. It has been good for gun sales and it underpins the culture of lethal self defence.  The  Stand Your Ground Law has now been adopted by twenty states. It is sometimes also called the Castle doctrine. And yes – it does indeed sound like a relic from a distant cowboy era or a time in old Europe when differences and bruised egos were settled by duels.

The name of the law smacks of unintentional Month Python. But its consequences have all too often been tragic. The rate of justifiable homicide in Florida has tripled since the introduction of the law. Most cases never even make it to court because the police are not allowed to arrest the shooter if they deem him or her to have acted out of self defense.

When death is involved, that is quite a snap judgement call to make beyond the remit of judicial oversight. That is the reason why Zimmerman wasn’t even arrested and kept in custody after he killed Trayvon Martin. The cops just believed his story. Again would that have been the case if the racial identities has been reversed?  I doubt it. Reasonably.

And so we get to reasonable doubt, of which there was enough in this case to acquit Zimmerman and destroy the prosecution’s case. But even reasonable doubt is a movable feast whose very idea is a subjective judgement call. Don’t tell me that in that crawl space of doubt, prejudice, preconceptions and stereotypes don’t play a role. The whole legal system with its checks and balances is based on the assumption that there is no such things as perfect legal objectivity in human beings.

So now close your eyes and imagine a man getting out a car, ignoring the police’s advice, gun in hand in pursuit of a teenager, stalking him and getting into a fight. Afraid, or annoyed, the young man throws a punch and pins the other man with the gun to the ground.

So far it’s still a scuffle, not a fight to the death. Now the man on the ground shoots the other one dead. The shooter is black. The dead teenager is white. Open your eyes.

Follow @mattfrei on Twitter

Tweets by @mattfrei