If justice is a conspiracy between moral logic and the law, then the revelation of the 36 hours following the George Zimmerman verdict is just how complete justice’s failure has been. The shambling closing statement at the trial last Thursday by attorney Bernie de la Rionda was a testament to how fully the state was seduced—with only occasional bulletins from some larger perspective by fellow prosecutor John Guy—into allowing the terms of the contest to be defined by Zimmerman’s counsel, Second City-wannabe Don West and Mark O’Mara, who was his own greatest competition in the sweepstakes for who could make the proceedings’ most flabbergasting comment. After telling the apparently beguiled jury that his client wasn’t accountable for a single moment of the events of February 26, 2012, that led to the death of teenager Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, O’Mara declared at Saturday night’s press conference that had the ethnicities of defendant and victim been reversed, there would have been no trial at all.
This was a political trial however much everyone tried to make it otherwise. Even in a country where the law is supposed to be above or outside politics we’ve been having political trials since a jury found abolitionist John Brown guilty of murder and treason in 1859 five months before a national civil war, if not since the early 1700s when women were routinely persecuted for being witches, which is to say for being women. If trials don’t take place outside a social context, however, neither are they intended to operate outside reason; the law that is half of justice’s equation may need to be explained to the jury by the judge, especially in a state that sanctions curbside executions by anyone who feels his ground must be “stood,” but moral logic shouldn’t have to be, or else it’s time to rethink juries altogether. On behalf of a populist judicial system that we keep telling ourselves is the best in the world, we believe a feature of democracy is a jury made up of every-day citizens who aren’t legal professionals and therefore bring with them a view of the big picture.
So is it possible that, once they retreated to their deliberations, among these six jurors no one posed the following? Surely someone said this: There are ambiguities in this matter that are the basis of a doubt we’re bound to entertain. We’ll probably never know whether it’s the voice of the defendant or victim (it’s still OK to call Martin a victim, isn’t it?) we hear calling for help on the tape of the 911 call made when Martin died (it’s still OK to say he died, isn’t it?). We’ll never be sure who was on top of whom during the altercation that immediately preceded the killing and we’ll never be sure just how afraid the defendant was or when or how quickly he became afraid. So let’s set these uncertainties aside for the moment and talk of what we do know, and about which there is no doubt, reasonable or not.
What we do know is that one night an unarmed teenager with no history of violence walked home from the store after buying some candy. What we know is that a stranger with a gun, expressing an immediate hostility that’s clear from the gunman’s own recorded words, and despite later claims of being “terrified” and admonitions by a police dispatcher not to get out of his car and follow the boy, got out of his car and followed the boy. We know that five minutes later the armed man shot the unarmed boy to death, something the defendant would identify as “God’s plan” on a subsequent television interview. Note that so far we haven’t even had to use the words “African-American” or any of the defendant’s vivid euphemisms. Over a month-long trial this factual landscape remained unchallenged by even the defense attorneys because its geography was beyond challenge, leaving us to consider how deep into the trees a jury must go to miss this forest, and how many thousands of years of ethical development it takes to conclude that with every unfolding second, Zimmerman assumed some growing degree of responsibility for whatever the outcome might be of a situation that he alone created.
By the standards of Tombstone 1881 not to mention the nitwitteries of Florida 2013, the utter absolution of Zimmerman in light of such circumstances can only be a kind of civil atrocity. This is so evident to any person of dispassion that, grasping it, O’Mara may have deduced his sole recourse was to overstate the opposite. Zimmerman’s representatives did their job, which was to defend their client, and maybe there’s no such thing as a lawyer doing his job too well or accomplishing his goal too egregiously, whatever barely contained egomania displays itself at Saturday night press conferences; as Victor Hugo wrote on John Brown’s conviction, “You save your shame but you kill your glory.” It’s the job of the rest of us, however, to note the difference between a verdict accepted—in which the most basic comprehension of right and wrong was so jettisoned—and a verdict respected. This particular verdict is an affront to the moral logic that makes up half of justice, something defense attorneys will find a way to live with because they’re in the business of living with it, jurors will struggle to live with as long as they don’t have to explain themselves (as they’ve opted in this instance not to do), and prosecutors will have a harder time living with as they ponder, assuming they have the insight for such a thing, how their legal thinking got lodged so far up their anatomical nether-regions that they lost sight of the case’s incontrovertibles. Any honor in this debacle is located away from the courtroom in a black America that once again swallowed hard, kept the peace, and cast onto four centuries of grievances yet another.
In the meantime, a conversation about the trial over lunch last week with my 85-year-old conservative Republican mother reminded me—as if I needed reminding, which apparently I do—that Fox Nation barely acknowledges the same laws of the molecular universe as the rest of us let alone the facts of one boy’s lonesome death. Notwithstanding this, the morning after the verdict I looked at her teenage grandson whom she adores, and who still has in his future walks home from the store (slurpies being his weapon du jour rather than Skittles) and, God help me, I was happy he’s white. To my daughter who isn’t, and who’s been following this with an eight-year-old’s precocious attention and swelling sense of her own racial identity, I have some explaining. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to make any excuses for us.