George Zimmerman was acquitted on a Saturday night. Keyboards were pounded. Reporters reported. Pundits opined. And the jury in the court of public opinion rendered its verdict.
Almost no criminal lawyer, prosecution or defense, saw a second degree murder conviction coming. Education and experience condemns us to view evidence and law with detached logic, so there is no emotionalism, no reliance on “common sense,” to fudge the proof.
While juries regularly reach verdicts that bear little relation to the facts, evidence and applicable law, mostly because it’s a deeply flawed system, that didn’t happen here. The best discussion of what happened that has been produced thus far comes from the Unwashed Advocate, Eric Mayer, who succinctly lays it out.
Acquittal was the right verdict in this case, no matter how much you feel Zimmerman acted out of prejudice, or how terrible it is that a young man was killed.
But the court of public opinion rendered its opinion on twitter following the verdict. For those who embrace the “wisdom of crowds,” consider its holding:
1. Trayvon Martin’s family should appeal the verdict, up to the Supreme Court if necessary.
2. On appeal, they can make George Zimmerman testify.
3. Then, George Zimmerman will be convicted because a young man is dead.
It’s not that people intentionally determined that the Constitution should be ignored. It’s that the crowds have no clue. Maybe they slept through civics class. Maybe they don’t remember. Maybe they don’t care. But less than ten days after we celebrated the independence of this nation, the court of public opinion has decided they don’t like them.
There will be no appeal because of the double jeopardy clause, which precludes it. Zimmerman did not have to testify, and will never have to testify in a criminal prosecution, because he has the right not to testify. And most sadly, the fact that a young man is dead does not compel the conclusion that someone be convicted of a crime.
So much for the adoration of crowdsourcing, or the desiderata that the public can be entrusted with the handling of the law. In the court of public opinion, assumption runs rampant, as people get their own “feel” for right and wrong, and then become so entrenched in their own bias that they refuse to consider the hard details of evidence and proof. People need no trial to tell them what happened. They hear a story and whatever gut reaction they have to it becomes their reality.
As it turns out, much of what was told about the death of Trayvon Martin is either false or mired in mystery. When left with the proposition that we will never know what “really” happened, the significance is that the prosecution then lacks evidence to prove its case. But Trayvon is dead, so it’s unfair since he can’t tell his side of the story? True, but that doesn’t change the requirement that a defendant be proven guilty. The rule is not proof if its available, assumption if it’s not. Except in the court of public opinion.
Is there nothing left to do? There is the possibility of a civil suit for wrongful death by Trayvon Martin’s family, just as Nicole Brown Simpson’s family sued O.J. The standard of proof is lower, “preponderance of the evidence” rather than “beyond a reasonable doubt,” but the outcome will be money damages at worst, not conviction of a crime and imprisonment.
There is also the possibility of a prosecution in federal court for violating Trayvon Martin’s civil right to live by shooting him, under the dreaded dual sovereignty that allows the feds a shot if the state fails to convict. That’s what happened to LAPD Sgt. Stacey Koon in the Rodney King beating.
Will either of these happen? Time will tell. The former seems far more likely than the latter, but Trayvon’s family may be more legally sophisticated by this point, such that they realize the difficulty that exists with providing evidence to prove their claim. It’s not that they can’t believe, but they can’t prove.
As show trials go, this one has generated plenty of fodder for television heads to fill the empty minutes between commercials. But it has also shown that the court of public opinion can’t be trusted. Americans still don’t understand their own system. They don’t get that the rights they want for themselves have to be given to people they despise as well. They refuse to accept that someone they feel with absolute certainty is guilty can be properly acquitted.
Did George Zimmerman have hate in his heart? Who knows. I don’t. Neither do you, no matter how strongly you believe you do. But he wasn’t proven to have killed Trayvon Martin because of his ill will toward a young black man, and when that happens under our system, acquittal must follow. Yet the court of public opinion refused to accept the verdict, instead pushing its million member jury deeper into ignorance.
There is one truth that neither conviction nor acquittal can change :
A young man named Trayvon died. He didn’t need to die. That is both tragic and sad.
And there is another truth that twitter cannot change. For all the vast information that has become available to us by virtue of the internet, there is no wisdom of the crowds.
Update: Already this morning, television news has broadcast the twits of New York City politicians and candidates following the verdict. They have the potential to enlighten, to calm, to inform. Instead, they are pandering and inflaming the passions and ignorance of the public, playing the confirmation bias card.
Whether they too lack a working grasp of our legal system, or know better and just don’t care, is unclear. Either way, a million people could end the day stupider than it began. Is it worth a vote? Don’t answer.