Sunday, July 14, 2013

Race, Law, & the Zimmerman Verdict

In the aftermath of the Zimmerman verdict, there appears (at least to my eyes) to be a consensus forming that the jury probably reached the right legal verdict in acquitting Zimmerman, however unsatisfying that result is to our moral sensibilities. Justin Peters wrote as much on Slate before the verdict came in, arguing essentially that the prosecution did not make the case for murder because there simply was not enough evidence and, crucially, no eyewitnesses. Nor did the defense team employ the "stand your ground" law as part of their defense of Zimmerman. The dearth of evidence meant they could invoke Florida's self-defense statute (which actually uses the phrase "stand your ground," but is similar to most other states' statutes). Emily Bazelon at Slate makes a related point that the jury is not to blame for the immense injustice felt in this verdict, but something must be amiss in Florida's laws. She quotes Adam Weinstein, who tweeted "The legal lesson for Floridians: in any altercation, however minor, the easiest way to avoid criminal liability is to kill the counterparty."

The manslaughter charge and failure to convict is a bit more confusing, but comprehensible. A definition of manslaughter in Floridian law notes that the same self defense statute used against second degree murder can be used against manslaughter as well. Additionally, the language under "excusable homicide" and "justifiable homicide" seems like a shield for Zimmerman, no matter how much his actions make a mockery of those terms.

All of these readings of the verdict—there wasn't enough evidence; the jury was hamstrung by the limitations of the law; Zimmerman's actions met the requirements of self defense—are derived from our deep desire to believe that the law is objective territory. It is text on a page written by disinterested legislators and as a tool that metes out punishment to guilty persons, it often works. Sometimes, like yesterday, it doesn't. That it did not work against Zimmerman is the source of our frustration, we tell ourselves, but that is the cost of a criminal justice system in which the innocent are protected until proven guilty.

Except that that's not really the source of our frustration... not today. The bitterness from the Zimmerman verdict comes from our abiding though usually unacknowledged sense that the law is not objective territory, not in America in an altercation between men of different races. Paul Campos in Salon, reminds us that the case was inescapably about race. It had to be. It is impossible, he argues, to imagine a racially inverted scenario of the Martin killing, in which a large black man armed with a gun stalks an unarmed white kid, confronts him, shoots the white kid in a physical altercation, and walks free. It does not matter that the text of our criminal justice laws is color-blind, if our application of those laws and our interpretation of guilt is distorted by racism. There is no solace that the jury reached "the right verdict" here if we have no confidence juries can do the same when the defendants are black.

We don't need to imagine this injustice based on Campos's hypothetical. Evidence abounds. In Georgia, another state with a "stand your ground" law, a black man named John McNeil killed shot and killed a white man who was assaulting him on his own property. Neither self defense nor "stand your ground" protected him from a sentence of life in prison. William Barber, the North Carolina NAACP leader who stepped in to help McNeil, put it plainly:
There is a history and legacy of discriminatory application of the law. African-Americans are caught in curious position. On one hand, we fight against stand your ground laws, but once the laws are on the books they aren’t applied to us.
McNeil, by the way, was released in February thanks to the work of his legal team. He did not get his guilty verdict overturned... instead they got his conviction altered to manslaughter and his sentencing reduced to the six years he already spent in prison and thirteen more years of probation. (Unlike Zimmerman, McNeil won't be able to vote until 2026.)

And because race and gender are always intertwined, it is not surprising to discover that women are victims of the law's caprice as well. Marissa Alexander, a black woman and victim of an abusive husband, felt threatened by her husband during an argument and fired a warning shot into the ceiling with her legally owned gun. She was convicted and sentenced, because of mandatory minimums, to 20 years in prison. Her prosecutor, by the way, was Angela Corey, the same prosecutor who failed to convict George Zimmerman. Details from The Huffington Post's coverage reveal that it is a complicated case in which Alexander probably acted unwisely:
A judge threw out Alexander's "stand your ground" self-defense claim, noting that she could have run out of the house to escape her husband but instead got the gun and went back inside. Alexander rejected a plea deal that would have resulted in a three-year prison sentence and chose to go to trial. A jury deliberated 12 minutes before convicting her.

"The irony of the 10-20-life law is the people who actually think they're innocent of the crime, they roll the dice and take their chances, and they get the really harsh prison sentences," Newburn said. "Whereas the people who think they are actually guilty of the crime take the plea deal and get out (of prison) well before. So it certainly isn't working the way it is intended."
Of course, George Zimmerman also acted unwisely. He did not have to pursue Trayvon Martin. In fact, he was instructed not to by the dispatcher. His jury seemed to take much longer than Alexander's to reach a decision. The difference seems to be exactly what Adam Weinstein tweeted: Alexander fired a warning shot and got convicted; Zimmerman killed Martin and he got off. It's a verdict that, as Rich Benjamin writes, "allows every paranoid, sub-intelligent, vigilante with a gun to go on victimizing black youth." Or, as Paul Campos wrote:
Florida’s laws, in their majestic equality, extend to people of all races the right to engage in vigilante killing that eliminates the sole witness to that killing.  To point this out is neither a defense of those laws, nor a claim that they will in fact be applied equally. 

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