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Beyond a reasonable doubt

July 14, 2013

The Trayvon Martin verdict has come as a bit of a shock, although it shouldn’t have. With the exception of the ruling that struck down DOMA a couple of weeks ago, legal news of late, particularly that coming out of the south, seems to be a steady march towards a judicial system that, with increasing specificity, codifies its distaste for women and non-whites.

My first reaction to the Martin decision was horrified. How could they do this? What message does this send to people who seem themselves in Trayvon Martin? Guardian columnist Gary Younge’s column perfectly captured that initial response. The column has since been taken down – “This article was launched early in error ,” says the site, “pending checks with the author.” I hope it will be restored. But in the mean time, you can read it here. [UPDATE: The article is now live again at the Guardian.]

The fact is, though, that the verdict isn’t the real problem in this case. In fact, based on what I (a layperson, total non-legal expert and somewhat inconsistent consumer of the news – your mileage may vary) have seen, this appears to be the right decision from a legal standpoint. The Atlantic’s Andrew Cohen offers more or less the same opinion with more backup. It’s the moral standpoint that’s troubling. And as Ta-Nehesi Coates, another Atlantic columnist pointed out in response to Cohen’s article, “Everything that is immoral is not illegal–nor should it be. I want to live in a society that presumes innocence. I want to live in that society even when I feel that a person should be punished.”

Read Coates’ summary in The Atlantic (from which the above quote is excerpted). If you read it carefully, you’ll see that what we really need to be horrified about is not the verdict in this case but the laws that allowed it to happen:

“An intelligent, self-interested observer of this case, who happens to live in Florida, would not be wrong to do as George Zimmerman did–buy a gun, master the finer points of Florida self-defense law and then wait. “

This is what is really horrifying.

Justice can only be served when our laws are just. The striking down of DOMA has demonstrated that we are capable of recognizing when a law is unjust and changing it. Florida, it’s time for some self-examination. Coates is right to draw attention to the Jordan Davis case, which, as he suggests, I knew nothing about. Just as I knew nothing about the Marissa Alexander case or any of the other cases that are making the rounds on social media to demonstrate the inconsistencies and injustice of Florida’s legal system.

If that’s the case, it’s on us. We don’t just need to protest verdicts. We need to protest the law. If courts do what they are supposed to do – presume innocence, make sure prosecutors prove their cases “beyond a reasonable doubt” – and justice is still not being served, we should take a closer examination of what we’ve chosen to call “just.”

4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 16, 2013 1:47 pm

    As manners matter less, legislation matters more.

  2. July 20, 2013 2:24 pm

    I think you are right. I have two thoughts–one, all the discussion about what it is like to grow up a black male in this country – see Charles Blow, for instance- can only be a good thing. Also, I think it’s noteworthy that all the marches I saw in person and on television seemed to be about 75% white, which also has to be a good thing. also, the emergence of the witness- the girl whose name I have forgotten – and the discussion about does she speak English, etc, and her very articulate appearance on piers Morgan – yes, she does speak English, a valid English, and to me, the juror who was interviewed and thought her inarticulate just seemed stupid. In fact, the sort of growing legitimacy and awareness of what it is to be a black American seemed really good. My other thought is that the legal possession of a concealed weapon is a very bad idea. If Zimmerman had not had a concealed weapon he would not have followed Martin, or have gotten out of the car. If Martin had know Zimmerman had a concealed weapon he would not have punched him. None of this would have happened if there had been no gun. It’s an argument for the restriction of handguns in a civilized society, but for some reason people are really pining for a return to the days of no government and every man for himself and let’s give guns to kindergartners. I really don’t get that at all, but it really has proved impossible to get any traction on the gun issue – so that seems pretty unsolvable.

  3. drgeek permalink
    August 2, 2013 9:18 am

    Marissa Alexander case is not an equivalent to the George Zimmerman case. Does she deserve 20 years? No, not at all.

  4. August 2, 2013 9:39 am

    No, it is not. I did not say it was. All I said was that it was another case demonstrating that Florida’s laws are far from just. Which it most certainly is. It’s unfortunate that the media has conflated the Alexander case with the Martin case, although it’s good that Martin’s case drew attention to Alexander’s. Because if anything, the different factors in Alexander’s case just demonstrates how far reaching the problem is.

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