The significance of the Zimmerman trial is that it is emblematic of the deep and ever-deepening racial divide in this country despite the successes of the civil rights movement of the '50s and '60s and the increasing participation of blacks in all institutions of our society, a participation culminating in the election of a black president in 2008 and his re-election in 2012. Deeper than the racial divide, however, is the left-right divide with the latter fueling the former. I call it 'planetary' because it is as if conservatives and leftists have no common ground and inhabit different planets.
Let's look at two examples.
On Sunday morning, in a short post entitled Justice Denied, Robert Paul Wolff writes, "I awoke this morning to learn that the Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman. Is there anyone on the face of the earth who believes that, had the race of Zimmerman and Martin been reversed, the verdict would have been the same?"
Despite the foolishness of what he posted on Sunday morning, Professor Wolff is not some two-bit cyberpunk with a blog. I used to have a high opinion of him, on the basis of two books of his I read. One of them is The Autonomy of Reason: A Commentary on Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (Harper & Row, 1973). The flyleaf of my copy bears the annotation, "I first read this book in the fall of 1980. It is an excellent study!" I was teaching a graduate seminar on Kant and found Wolff's book extremely useful. The other book I have read is his In Defense of Anarchism which I also found impressive. In November of 2009 I wrote three long entries about the anarchism book. They can be found in my Anarchism category.
Now in what sense was justice denied? The state's case against Zimmerman was so weak as to be nonexistent. So justice was served by his acquittal. Had Zimmerman been found guilty of second-degree murder, that would have been the height of injustice. That ought to be perfectly obvious to anyone who followed the trial. So justice was not denied to Zimmerman. He was justly treated.
If Wolff means anything, he means that justice was denied to Trayvon Martin. But if that is what he means, then he doesn't understand the purpose of a criminal trial. The purpose of a criminal proceeding is not to secure justice for the victim. If that were the purpose, then every defendant would have to be found guilty. For in every acquittal there is no justice for the victim, or victims as in the O. J. Simpson case.
A criminal trial can issue in the correct result whether or not justice is achieved for the victim. If the correct result is an acquittal, then of course there is no justice for the victim in that trial. But if the correct result is a conviction, then there is, per accidens, justice for the victim in that trial. The main point, however, is that a criminal trial is not about seeking justice for the victim, but about making sure that the accused is not wrongly convicted.
The glory of our system of justice is the (defeasible) presumption of innocence: the accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty. This presumption of innocence puts the burden of proof in a criminal trial where it belongs, on the state. The prosecution must prove that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt; the defense is under no obligation to prove that the defendant is innocent. In a criminal proceeding all the defense has to do is raise a reasonable doubt as to the guilt of the accused.
It is of course deeply unfortunate that Trayvon Martin died young of a gunshot wound. But he brought about that result himself by recklessly attacking a man who then, naturally, defended himself against Martin's deadly attack using deadly force. Zimmerman did nothing legally impermissible.
I wonder if Wolff thinks that Martin would have received justice if Zimmerman had been wrongly convicted. I hope not. Again, the crucial point here is that the purpose of a murder trial is not to secure justice for the victim, but to see if the accused is first of all a killer, and then whether he is a murderer. There is no doubt that Zimmerman killed Martin. The question is whether or not the killing was legally justifiable. And indeed it was found to be legally justifiable.
If Zimmerman had been black and Martin Hispanic would the verdict have been the same? Yes. Why not? O. J. Simpson is black and the two people he slaughtered (Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson) were white, and yet O. J. was acquitted.
My second example is Roger L. Simon. He thinks, as I do, that Zimmerman should never have been charged. But he goes a step further when he writes:
Congratulations to the jury for not acceding to this tremendous pressure and delivering the only conceivable honest verdict. This case should never have been brought to trial. It was, quite literally, the first American Stalinist “show trial.” There was, virtually, no evidence to convict George Zimmerman. It was a great day for justice that this travesty was finally brought to a halt.
We all know Al Sharpton, the execrable race baiter of Tawana Brawley and Crown Heights, agitated publicly for this trial more than anyone else. But he most likely would not have succeeded had it not been for Obama’s tacit support. As far as I know this is unprecedented in our history (a president involving himself in a trial of this nature).
Looks like we have a nice little 'conversation' about race going here. Too bad the conversants live on different planets.