LEXANDRIA, La. – Those upset with the acquittal of George Zimmerman on the charge of second-degree murder in the death of teenager Trayvon Martin contend Florida’s court system somehow failed.
Emotion and, perhaps, some measure of ignorance seem to be driving many who make that contention. Ignorance of the purpose of the court system certainly hasn't helped those who struggle with the not guilty verdict on July 13.
“This a court of law, young man, not a court of justice,” Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. once observed. What exactly did one of America's best-known Supreme Court justices mean?
According to Black’s Law Dictionary, justice is “the fair and proper administration of laws.” Law, according to the same reference, is “the body of rules, standards, and principles that the courts of a particular jurisdiction apply in deciding controversies brought before them.”
What is Florida's procedure for deciding controversies like someone being charge with second-degree murder?
A dispute that involves a second-degree murder charge begins by amassing a pool of citizens from which jurors are selected to weigh evidence and then render a verdict.
Potential jurors in the Sunshine State must possess a Florida driver’s license or an identification card issued by the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. Some of those who are randomly selected to be considered for jury duty are disqualified for various reasons, such as a felony conviction. Of those who are qualified, they are then questioned by both the prosecution and the defense, who in concert select those who will hear the case.
At the beginning of the trial, and at times during trial, the jury will receive specific instructions from the judge related to evidence and procedure. The most critical instruction in any and all cases is the principle of innocent until proven guilty. In other words, the jury is to assume the defendant’s innocence and that the charges are, in essence, false. The burden of proof lies with the prosecutor.
The prosecution must prove, in the case of second-degree murder, guilt beyond reasonable doubt that, according to Florida law, the accused has committed the “unlawful killing of a human being, when perpetrated by any act imminently dangerous to another and evincing a depraved mind regardless of human life, although without any premeditated design to effect the death of any particular individual.”
A juror can only find in favor for the government at the end of the trial if the prosecution has erased all reasonable doubts about the defendant’s innocence from the juror’s mind.
As the process was applied to the Zimmerman case in Florida, six women (five Caucasian and one Hispanic) were selected to hear the case. In the end they did not believe the prosecution had met the burden of proof to find Zimmerman guilty of murder. They still had a reasonable doubt.
“Law is not justice and a trial is not a scientific inquiry into truth,” someone once said. “A trial is the resolution of a dispute.” As such, I have yet to hear anyone specifically point put exactly where the system broke down or failed.
One reason why it was difficult for the prosecution to overcome the hurdle of reasonable doubt was the absence of eyewitnesses. The best they could offer was an “ear witness” in the form of Martin’s girlfriend who had been talking to him via cell phone just prior to his death. The Bible, as an example, stipulates that there be testimony from at least two eyewitnesses in order to find someone guilty of murder.
Don West, one of Zimmerman's attorneys, summed up the situation well when he said, “The jury kept a tragedy from becoming a travesty.”
The fact that a teenager who was walking home from a convenience store was shot to death is an unspeakable tragedy. His family and friends will be forever affected.
However, it would have been a travesty if the Florida system had been circumvented just to appease the emotional reaction over a very unfortunate tragedy. The jurors, who did not ask to be put into an emotionally charged situation, did their duty.
The criminal court system throughout the United States is governed by rules and procedure in large measure to protect the rights of the accused. It is not “American Idol” where anyone and everyone helps decide the outcome.
No court system is perfect. However, if you are ever accused of any crime, especially a serious crime like murder, you had better pray it happens in America where you are presumed innocent and your guilt must be proved beyond any reasonable doubt.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Kelly Boggs is a weekly columnist for Baptist Press, director of the Louisiana Baptist Convention's office of public affairs, and editor of the Baptist Message, newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.)