The dust is settling following the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, but concerns remain and the wound is still sensitive. I am among those with concerns, not so much about the trial as about the aftermath. Was the shooting about race? The evidence suggests otherwise--Zimmerman did not say that he was following a black man, but a teenager. Unfortunately teenagers are often suspected, and unfortunately such suspicions are often justified. White teenagers walking through white neighborhoods are frequently stopped and questioned by police simply for the fact that teenagers often entertain themselves with vandalism. It is at least as likely that Zimmerman suspected Martin because he was young as because he was black. What would have happened had their races been reversed? Apart from the fact that Zimmerman is as white as President Obama, conservative columnists have unearthed several cases of black citizens shooting white teenagers, and although none are exactly the same the outcome was always that it neither went to trial nor received significant media attention. Was this an unprovoked shooting? Zimmerman's injuries at the scene suggest he endured quite a pummeling before pulling the trigger. Did Trayvon Martin deserve to die? Probably not; but neither did George Zimmerman, and his claim that he feared for his own life during that fight was at least credible.
I am not bothered by the verdict; I would not, I think, be bothered by the verdict had it gone the other way. What bothers me is the second-guessing, those playing the game of juror at home, deciding whether Zimmerman should live or die based on media coverage. The claim is that Zimmerman got away with murder because he was white, or that because Martin was poor and black the justice system was against him.
It echoes of the claims made in the wake of the O. J. Simpson trial. During that trial, some complained that he would be convicted because he was a successful rich black man and society couldn't stand that; others that he would be acquitted because he was rich and could buy justice. He was acquitted: the jury decided that it was possible he did not kill his wife. So, too, in the present case the jury decided that George Zimmerman did not intentionally kill Trayvon Martin, but was reasonably afraid for his own life and acted in self-defense. Those decisions were made based on the evidence presented in the trial process.
That trial process is important. We use an adversarial system, creating two teams who compete against each other, each presenting the best possible case for its position. The jury decides based on those presentations which side wins. In a criminal case, though, it is not sufficient that the jury thinks the defendant is guilty; they must know that he is guilty, that there is no other possible explanation for the evidence but that he committed the crime. That is the way our justice system works.
The doubts surrounding this case mean one of two things: either our citizens do not believe that the system works that way, or they do not want it to work that way. We who are not part of the jury cannot know whether they thought Zimmerman probably was guilty but might not be, or whether they were certain he was not guilty--that is not something our system reveals about the verdict. All we know is that they concluded his guilt was not proved, and that he must therefore be acquitted. Yet to those who claim that he ought to have been convicted: do you really want a justice system in which people are punished for what they might have done? The court of public opinion has convicted many who were later exonerated, and exonerated many who were convicted. We do not punish based on public opinion, but on the conclusions of jurors charged with careful consideration of the relevant evidence. That is as it should be, and we the people should accept those conclusions, as those jurors are our representatives in the matter and reach the conclusions they believe we would reach if we knew what they knew.