Beyond a reasonable doubt
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.”