The following note in italics appeared in a thread on my Facebook wall after I posted the “Not Guilty” verdict in George Zimmerman’s trial. It’s from a young lady who is a former neighbor whom I’ve known since she was in elementary school:
Aliza- I would really like to get your full opinion on this. I am outraged and upset and disappointed in our justice system. If you don’t feel comfortable posting it here please send me a message. Since the O.J. trial I have not felt such a strong need to boycott our judiciary system. I know I am young but this seriously make me want to rebel.
First of all, let’s just get out of the way that you are and will always be 11 years old in my mind when we lived across the street from each other 15 years ago. I am in complete denial that you are now old enough to remember the O.J. trial, but flattered you’d seek out my opinion on a matter of this complexity and depth of soul.
When I was in high school, I seriously considered a career as a lawyer. One afternoon, I was having lunch with my grandfather, and discussed this with him. He asked what kind of attorney I’d like to be, and I (of course) said I wanted to practice criminal law. It was dramatic and smart, and seemed to merge my love for theater, justice and arguing all in one. Then he asked me the following question:
“What would you do if someone wanted you to defend him, and you felt sure he was guilty of the crime? Would you accept him as a client?”
I stopped and considered, and said I didn’t think I could do that. How could I in good conscience defend someone I thought was guilty?
He answered, “This is how. In our justice system, a person is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. It’s the prosecutor’s job to do his best to prove your client’s guilt. If he does his job to the best of his ability, and you do your job to the best of yours – if your client is truly guilty – you will lose your case. That is the way the system is set up to work.”
Right then, I knew I didn’t have the stomach for a career in criminal law. Not all things are equal. I knew I would win some of my cases if I did my job well, and that in some of those cases, a guilty person would be set free. The converse option wasn’t any more appealing to me – being a prosecutor who, when up against a less talented defense attorney, might end up putting an innocent person in jail.
But that conversation with my grandfather created the lens through which I viewed famous/high-profile trials since, particularly the ones that were especially charged with racial and/or sexual overtones – any trial with significant consequences for our society’s fabric of social justice. I didn’t watch the whole trial, but in the Trayvon Martin case, I’m less inclined to blame the justice system than the prosecuting attorney first, with institutionalized racism coming in as a close second.
I’m the farthest thing from an expert in legal matters, but in my mind, the justice system worked the way it was designed to, and tragically, a person who took the life of an innocent kid was found not guilty of murder or manslaughter. The defense team did a better job than the prosecution. No one knows (nor does anyone have the right to know) what went on during jury deliberations. Zimmerman is now the only person still living who knows for sure what happened the night he shot Trayvon Martin. Most people know Zimmerman’s neighborhood had seen a rash of burglaries, and was on high alert as a result. Most people know now Trayvon Martin did nothing to warrant being followed. He had every right to be where he was, when he was. Most people know now that in Zimmerman’s 911 call, police told him to stop following Martin, yet he continued pursuit. Most people know now that Zimmerman had a history of run-ins with the law and of violence. No one doubts that had Zimmerman not had a gun – legally, I might add – Martin would be alive. (This is pure speculation on my part, but I’m guessing if George Zimmerman didn’t have a gun, he wouldn’t have had the cojones to follow a large teenaged boy around in the dark at ALL, let alone confront him.) Most people assume (myself included) that had Trayvon been white, Zimmerman wouldn’t have followed him in the first place.
Judge Debra Nelson was tough and held fast. From what I saw, she didn’t allow the defense team to get away with much, if anything. The jury was given the option of convicting Zimmerman of manslaughter (which is personally, what I thought would happen,) in addition to murder – significantly increasing options for a conviction. Many people with much more in the way of legal smarts than I have felt the defense made plenty of mistakes that were never truly exploited or even seized upon by the prosecution. The jurors were given very explicit instructions on how to conduct deliberations. They spent a almost 17 hours and came back with a unanimous verdict of ‘not guilty.’ All of that tells me that either the prosecution didn’t have a case under Florida law, or they did have a case but failed miserably to convince the jury of it.
It’s an imperfect system, of course, as it was designed by humans who are also famously flawed. It’s meant, Casey, to prevent verdicts based upon emotion, and encourage verdicts based upon proven fact and the law. When I think about it, that is indeed how I want it. So rather than rebel against the justice system (I’m not sure how you’d do that, anyhow) perhaps take heart in the searing outrage and profound sadness so many have expressed about the verdict. Perhaps be encouraged that this case has shone such a bright spotlight on the myriad of factors leading up to the trial in the first place. Maybe be hopeful that people will pay better attention to their elected officials who have the power to enact laws like “Stand Your Ground” that in fairness, make it easier for one to protect oneself in one’s own home in Florida without being prosecuted, but also give cover to overzealous cop wannabes like George Zimmerman. Maybe Trayvon’s senseless, brutal killing will strike a much needed blow to racial profiling.
Conversely, the realist in me feels compelled to mention the chance that this will fade in our collective consciousness until the next heart-breaking travesty is brought to our national attention. People like you, though, give me hope that it won’t.
Aliza Worthington grew up in Brooklyn, NY, and now lives in Baltimore. She began writing in 2009 at the age of 40. Sometimes her writing follows The Seinfeld Model of “no learning, no hugging.” Other times it involves lots of both. She blogs about Life, Liberty and Happiness at “The Worthington Post.” Her work also appears in Catonsville Patch, Kveller, and has been featured in the Community Spotlight section of Daily Kos under the username “Horque.” Her writing has also landed in the “Winner’s Circle” on Midlife Collage twice. Follow her on Twitter at @AlizaWrites.