Blind Justice?

Blind Justice?
July 15, 2013

David L. Applegate

David Applegate is a Chicago-based trial lawyer and partner at the law firm of Williams Montgomery... (read full bio)

The jury in the Trayvon Martin case has found George Zimmerman not guilty of second degree murder beyond a reasonable doubt in the tragic shooting of Mr. Martin and, along with many concerned citizens, the usual suspects in the racial grievance industry are distressed:  community organizers, radical priests, leftish Congressman, and the father of the recently convicted Jesse Jackson Jr. 

How could a jury (of all women, by the way) acquit a 29-year old “white” man of murdering a seventeen year old black youth instead of implicitly finding that the shooter acted in self-defense?  Is it possible that 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation a black man still can’t get a fair trial in America, as former Yale University President Kingman Brewster, now deceased, once provocatively claimed during the Black Panther trial in New Haven, Connecticut?

“It is of course just beyond belief to many that an unarmed teenager somehow ends up being the one on trial and having to prove that he himself is no threat to anyone,” New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church pastor Marshall Hatch of Chicago’s West Garfield Park neighborhood said on Sunday, as quoted in the July 15, 2013, Chicago Tribune.

Never mind that the “white Hispanic,” as The New York Times characterized Zimmerman, was the one on trial and that the deceased black youth was in effect the complaining witness.  George Zimmerman’s mother is Peruvian and her last name is Meza; what would The Times have called him had his mother named him Jorge instead of George?  And not that it should matter, but what would happen if The Times called President Obama a “white African-American” because his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, was a young white woman from Kansas?

For those of us who weren’t present at the shooting or in the jury room it is perilous to tread too far into these waters, but the Zimmerman case has many markings of a political show trial, designed not to ascertain the truth but to placate the popular wisdom and to avenge the angry mob:

  • The accused in this case was a former unknown who cooperated with police at every step of the investigation, not a sports and entertainment superstar who attempted to escape investigation in a white Ford Bronco.

 

  • Local prosecutors initially weighed all the evidence – including Mr. Zimmerman’s statements as a cooperating witness/suspect, his re-enactment of the incident, and his recorded contemporaneous telephone call – and concluded that the evidence was too thin to support a criminal conviction and therefore declined to press charges.

 

  • Whether Mr. Zimmerman was right or wrong to have profiled and followed Mr. Martin in the first place, in other words, the authorities respected the proposition that a criminal defendant – much less a suspect – is presumed innocent until proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and gave the benefit of that doubt to Mr. Zimmerman.  (That a jury in the end found reasonable doubt amply reinforces that decision.)

 

But racial politics came into play as community organizers and civil rights leaders moved into action, aided and encouraged by the U. S. Department of Justice at federal taxpayer expense.   Helping to stoke the simmering fires, the President of the United States himself proclaimed that, if he had a son, then he would have “looked like” Trayvon Martin.  To placate the mob, Florida governor Rick Scott appointed a “special prosecutor” to determine for a second time whether to charge Mr. Zimmerman with a crime.

Now that a jury has acquitted Mr. Zimmerman, the president has seemingly backed off, saying that “I know this case has elicited strong passions.  … But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken.”

A jury has indeed spoken, but it remains unclear that we remain a nation of laws and not of men.  The same day that the president made his hortatory comment, his Justice Department announced that it would re-investigate whether it should criminally prosecute Mr. Zimmerman for violating Mr. Martin’s civil rights.  Even governor Scott, a Republican, has been forced to name a task force to make sure “a tragedy such as this does not occur in the future.”

Yet every week in Mr. Obama’s hometown of Chicago, not far from his own neighborhood, young men and women who look like Mr. Obama’s children are gunned down by young men who also look like Mr. Obama’s hypothetical son.   Many of the victims are Trayvon Martin’s age, give or take a year; some of them are infants.  Few of their assailants purport to act in self-defense, and none of them are neighborhood watchmen legally carrying a gun:  unlike Sanford, Florida, Chicago has for decades declared it illegal for private citizens even to own firearms, more recently even to carry them as far as their front porches or garages.   But the shooters’ own mothers and neighbors refuse to identify them to police and the Justice Department does not investigate them for violating anyone’s civil rights.

As Victor Davis Hanson argues elsewhere, political prosecutions threaten our democracy by undermining the rule of law and substituting the rule of men – or worse, the rule of the mob.   “Social justice” based on race or politics is not justice, but instead an exercise of pure power.  Only when justice is blind, to race and to ethnicity as well as to status in life, can a criminal suspect or defendant count on the court system envisioned by our Founders arriving at a simulacrum of the truth.

Did the older and pudgier George Zimmerman genuinely fear for his life when the taller and younger Mr. Martin, a high school football player, began beating on him?  Did Mr. Zimmerman shoot Trayvon Martin in self-defense?  Was he justified in being suspicious of Mr. Martin, who did not live in the neighborhood, in the first instance?

I do not know the answers to these questions and, respectfully, neither does anyone else who wasn’t there.  That includes the president, his attorney general, and the mothers of Mr. Zimmerman and Mr. Martin, each of whom swore under oath at trial that she honestly believed it was her son screaming for help on the 911 call tapes.  But in a case of reasonable doubt a jury is sworn to find “not guilty,” and a jury so sworn, in a highly politicized case, has found Mr. Zimmerman “not guilty.”

If we respect our laws and Constitution, then we should respect the jury’s verdict.  If justice is blind and jurors are to be fair and impartial, then neither Mr. Martin’s nor Mr. Zimmerman’s “race” should ever have mattered, either in the past or going forward.  It remains to be seen if that will be the case.

David L. Applegate

David Applegate is a Chicago-based trial lawyer and partner at the law firm of Williams Montgomery... (read full bio)