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Monday, July 15, 2013

Trying to stay out of this

Even though I still pay taxes (and vote) in the US, since I no longer live there I should probably refrain from weighing in on current events there.

However, I have to say I am non-plussed by the demonstrations taking place in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict.  A demonstration/protest usually has some goal in mind... some expectation of a changed outcome. 

Yet here is a jury verdict at the end of legal proceedings and trial that were conducted under a media microscope.  That's the nature of the beast.  That's the horse race.  The police, prosecutors, attorneys, and judges (and let's not forget the media) all did their utmost to influence the outcome of the trial.  But in the end, the decision was left in the hands of a bunch of people too dumb to get out of jury duty.  I kid.  Sort of.

Seriously, it's an imperfect system.  But it's better than most.

But I just wish that the public would grow up and realize that the time to examine (and perhaps change) the rules by which this game is played happens in the voting booth.  Sure, some pressure can be brought to bear on elected officials.  But for the most part, you ask the policy questions before you vote for someone... not after.  Otherwise it just seems like silly buyer's remorse to protest that the race was run according to rules you approved of by voting for this stiff over that one.  

What's that?  You didn't vote for the people who wrote / upheld the current laws?  Well, guess what?  The majority of your neighbors did.  Welcome to democracy!  Better luck next time around.

If you think a law is unjust and should be changed... or there is some gap in the legal code that needs filling... by all means try to elect people who feel as you do, or at least do what you can to influence those already in office.  That is an excellent reason to hold demonstrations and do other things to express your outrage.

But to protest the outcome of a jury trial is just childish.  It is like calling to rerun the horse race after the last horse has crossed the finish line, just because your horse didn't finish in the money.

And one other thing that troubles me deeply:  There is, in my humble opinion, an unmistakable racist element to these sort of protests.  After all, I didn't see anything of this sort after the OJ verdict; a flawed verdict if ever there was one!  

I guess when the flawed system lets your horse win, you shut up and count your winnings.

But as I said... I'm trying to stay out of this.

Posted by David Bogner on July 15, 2013 | Permalink


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David, I'm not a court watcher by any means, but the radio station I listen to during my morning drive time has had a plethora of guests who are either professional attorneys or analysts and to a person, they said he would be found not guilty based on the evidence. I even heard one who thought the prosecutor was only politically motivated. He pointed out that the police did not arrest Zimmerman based on their investigation. It wasn't until a special prosecutor was brought in after the family cried racism. It is also interesting that the media kept calling Zimmerman a white (several sources called him Hispanic) and the US Dept of Justice provided security for the protestors who came down prior to the trail -- the protesters include the Rev Al Sharpton, a controversial figure at best. Thankfully, 6 impartial women viewed the evidence and determined that prosecutor did not prove criminal intent on Mr. Zimmerman's part.

Posted by: ProphetJoe | Jul 15, 2013 3:46:47 PM

What you didn't see is the call by many politicians to has a federal case and then a civil suit against Zimmernan. If you don't win the first time you get two more shots at it. If he had been convicted you would not have seen the post case demonstrations.

Posted by: Dave | Jul 15, 2013 5:02:43 PM

I think there are several distinct questions here.

Was Zimmerman guilty of these criminal charges beyond a reasonable doubt, according to Florida criminal law? Almost certainly not.

Was Zimmerman *morally* at fault for terrible judgment and rash action that night? For provoking a confrontation, against police advice, with an innocent unarmed teenager whom he found suspicious based on his appearance (race included)? For essentially claiming, "Look what you made me do" after that idiotic, unnecessary confrontation got our of hand? Hell, yeah.

Do I think that "Stand Your Ground" laws create a dangerous environment of vigilantism, and that American gun culture can lead to dangerously irresponsible behavior? Absolutely.

A few thoughtful pieces on the case that I have found:


One comment on Ta-Nehisi Coates' post that has stuck with me:

'For me, the case is a reminder that bad laws produce bad outcomes, and that juries will rarely change that.
I can't look at this case without thinking of the Florida legislature, like others around the country, passing a stand-your-ground law amid a historic decline in actual violence, but a historic rise in the state's diversity. I can't think of George Zimmerman and his neighborhood watch program without thinking of a three-century long history of the violent enforcement of communal norms and racial hierarchies in the South, through the tacit and explicit state sanctioning of such rules being enforced by private citizens. The idea that a home needs to be defended from shiftless, dangerous dark-skinned men by communal patrols made up of private citizens has a very particular resonance south of the Mason-Dixon line. I didn't watch the trial. I don't have an informed opinion as to the merits or strength of the case against George Zimmerman. But I'm quite certain that the social and legal regime that produced the tragic death of Trayvon Martin are rotten to the core."

This rings very true to me. I live in New Jersey, in a pretty liberal state, by and large. But I have black friends who are *routinely* pulled over when driving a couple of towns over by the all-white police force there. "Driving while black" is grounds for suspicion. Is it intentional racism? Possibly not. But in ten years living here, I've *never* been pulled over in that town. I don't think that's coincidental. I don't look suspicious to those cops. I've made shiva calls to folks in that town on Shabbat, walking around on residental streets near twilight. If I'd been black, I'm pretty confident that my Saturday evening walks would not have been so peaceful, pleasant, or free of confrontation.

Posted by: Michael | Jul 15, 2013 8:05:00 PM

Michael... The law doesn't care about ethics or morals. It cares about the law. You are making an emotional case based on erroneous information. The defense never invoked the stand your ground statute. Not before the trial and not during it. But since you seem determined to mix morals and ethics into the discussion of what is a purely legal issue, if there is anything morally or ethically wrong here it is the interference of the federal government in a casemwhere they had no jurisdiction. Neither the local police nor the prosecutor's office felt there was any legal basis to indict Zimmerman. In fact, it wasn't until a special prosecutor was appointed and the media and government essentially forced the case into a courtroom that any charges were brought. Even now that the outcome is not to the liking of the media and federal government (or at least the executive branch thereof) you mark my words, there will soon be a federal indictment on charges of violating the dead man's civil rights. I ask you, if a jury has found that Zimmerman acted in self defense (as defined by the laws of the state in which he lives, why is he going to end up in jail? You should pray that you never take a perfectly legal stand in your local jurisdiction that is not to the liking of the federal government... because they do not feel bound by the law, nor do they respect it.

Posted by: Treppenwitz | Jul 15, 2013 9:11:21 PM

Off the main topic, I'm curious. Why do you pay taxes to the US Government if you are living in Israel? I live in NZ and pay taxes here. The British Government doesn't expect me to pay taxes there too.

Posted by: Kiwi Noa | Jul 15, 2013 9:45:24 PM

Kiwi Noa.. Israel and the US have a tax treaty that suits both countries quite nicely, but treats dual citizens quite badly. Also, my wife makes som of her income from US clients.

Posted by: Treppenwitz | Jul 15, 2013 11:47:33 PM

It was open and shut. In order to convict, the state had to prove that Zimmerman didn't act in self defense. They didn't come close to making their case.

And as for Al Sharpton? If he takes one side of an issue, you can be pretty sure that the other side is right. The man is a thug and a clown, and he should have been laughed out of the public arena (and possibly jailed) after the Tawana Brawley hoax 20 years ago.

Have an easy fast - whatever's left of it on your side of the pond. And it's good to have you back.

Posted by: psachya | Jul 16, 2013 6:33:03 PM

I wasn't in the courtroom and didn't hear all the evidence, so I have no right to have an opinion about the jury's decision. But I don't find it the least bit improbable that a policeman in Florida (or indeed anywhere else in the southern US) would decline to arrest a Caucasian-appearing man for shooting a black teenager who was in a place he "didn't belong," based not on the circumstances or the available evidence but based simply on agreement that Martin probably had been up to no good and got what he deserved. Did you never read To Kill a Mockingbird?

I do know that Zimmerman is part Hispanic; had his name been Valdez instead, he might well have been treated differently. And factor into your opinion of this whole matter the reality that a different Florida court has just convicted a black woman and sentenced her to 20 years for firing warning shots (which hit nobody, therefore causing no death or injury) over the head of her abusive ex-husband, along with the indisputable evidence about our sorry nationwide record for arresting and convicting black crack users orders of magnitude more often than white powder cocaine users.

If the prosecution made a lousy case, or if the letter of the law left Zimmerman standing on solid ground, then there is no basis for attacking the verdict, but that's not remotely the same thing as requiring acknowledgement that justice has been done.

Posted by: bratschegirl | Jul 17, 2013 5:59:21 PM

David - I agree that Zimmerman should have been acquitted based on the evidence. I do not know enough about the pre-trial process to judge one way or the other about the propriety of pressing charges. I agree that, based on what we know about the case now, a federal civil rights trial does not seem appropriate. It is possible that a civil wrongful death case brought by the Martin family makes sense, given that the standard of proof is "preponderance of evidence" and not "beyond a reasonable doubt." In such a case, Zimmerman would have to take the stand and explain his actions under cross-examination. I'm not sure whether or not that would be productive, but it is a reasonable option and not an abuse of the legal system.

Three responses to your rebuttal against me, though.

a) Legality is not the only thing at stake here. Law and morality are not the same thing, and you're right that those looking to the legal system to achieve justice will often be dissatisfied. The question at trial was a narrow one about a small snapshot of time and a very particular slice of Zimmerman's mental state at the moment that he pulled the trigger. It was not about anything else. The trial was not designed to get at questions like "What level of moral responsibility did Zimmerman bear for Martin's death," "Is public welfare served by armed vigilantism," and "Why was Zimmerman unable to imagine how his actions might have appeared to an innocent person, and what reaction they might have prompted? Why was he so sure that Martin was a thug?" But these are important questions, and worth discussing. The morality and ethics of the larger situation may not have been applicable to the criminal case's outcome. But they are critically important to larger discussions of Florida law, intergroup relations, public policy, and the critical importance of good judgment for those who go armed. The combination of easy access to firearms, "stand your ground" laws, and a definition of self-defense that comes into play only in the instant of pulling the trigger, rather than in the larger context of the initiation and escalation of the conflict, is a deadly combination.

b) It is not true that Stand Your Ground had nothing to do with this case. It is true that the defense did not invoke it explicitly, since there was no evidence that Zimmerman had the chance to retreat, once engaged in the fight with Martin, and didn't take it. However, it was part of the case in several ways. See this for details:

It was part of the jury instructions:

"If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another..."

and the (fairly idiotic) juror who was interviewed on the news a few days ago by Anderson Cooper had that understanding as well:

COOPER: Because of the two options you had, second degree murder or manslaughter, you felt neither applied?
JUROR: Right. Because of the heat of the moment and the Stand Your Ground...

And equally importantly, SYG was a critical part of the decision by law enforcement not to arrest Zimmerman at the time of the shooting - and it was that decision not to make an arrest, rather than the trial outcome, which attracted attention to the case and turned it into a national one. The sense that an unarmed teenager had been shot and killed with total impunity, not even an arrest, was the impetus for national outrage. It's certainly what I remember hearing about at the time, and there are many commentators (like Ta-Nehisi Coates, above) whose primary outrage was at the initial state of affairs, not the jury's decision, which they largely saw as correct given the available evidence.

Sanford, FL officials cited Stand Your Ground when describing that decision:

"Zimmerman provided a statement claiming he acted in self defense, which at the time was supported by physical evidence and testimony," the letter, signed by Sanford City Manager Norton Bonaparte Jr., says. "By Florida Statute, law enforcement was PROHIBITED from making an arrest based on the facts and circumstances they had at the time."


At any rate, to be clear: I think that the primary story of this case is not that Zimmerman is a blameless hero, but that he exhibited excruciatingly poor judgement at several junctures in the case. Zimmerman jumped to conclusions about Martin's intentions based on his appearance and clothes. He chose to follow him. He chose to ignore police advice and get out of his car. He chose to confront him, while carrying a gun - which upped the ante of any confrontation. And, most of all, he was totally blind to Martin's perspective: that he was reacting as an innocent person who believed someone was stalking him.

Bearing arms is a massive and sobering responsibility. People who do so should look at Zimmerman not as a vindication, but as a warning of how easy it is to screw up that responsibility, and how permanent the consequences are.

I think there's a real conversation to be had there, beyond the details of this case, about how we assume the worst about people who are different from us; and about the ways that laws like Florida's can escalate conflicts and help them turn lethal. If there's any good that can come out of this tragedy, maybe it will be that.

Posted by: Michael | Jul 22, 2013 1:08:29 AM

Trep, is this you?


Posted by: Wry Mouth | Sep 3, 2013 8:13:26 AM

Nope.  I shaved off my beard a few years ago.  Please try to keep up.  :-)

On Tuesday, September 3, 2013, Typepad wrote:

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Posted by: David Bogner | Sep 4, 2013 9:52:39 AM

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