EDITORIAL: Dumb Justice

Jewish Light Editorial

When in the course of American events we have the opportunity to have a thoughtful and meaningful dialogue about race relations, you can be sure of one thing: Al Sharpton will do everything in his power to mess it up.

Living up to his deserved reputation of divisiveness, Sharpton used the not guilty verdict of George Zimmerman to impose on the six community jury members — all women, five white and one black and Hispanic — the burden of our society’s shortcomings when it comes to race. 

“What this jury has done is establish a precedent that when you are young and fit a certain profile, you can be committing no crime … and be killed and someone can claim self-defense…we had to march to even get a trial and even at trial, when he’s exposed over and over again as a liar, he is acquitted.”

That, of course, is a blatant exaggeration, if not utter disregard, of what happened. And it helps no one at all. 

The tragedy of Trayvon Martin’s death is unquestionable. A life lost for seemingly no purpose is not something of which we as a society should be collectively proud. Many factors — racism, permissive gun laws, an overly protective Stand Your Ground law in Florida, pop culture that glamorizes vigilantes and more — provide the backdrop to whatever actually may have happened between Martin and Zimmerman.

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Anat Cohen at The Sheldon


But to place the burden of societal race relations on a jury in a criminal case that by all accounts was looking to follow the law — the members even asked for a clarification of the manslaughter charge during their deliberations so they could apply that law to the facts at hand — endangers the value of our jurisprudence system.

If you follow Sharpton’s logic, the jurors ought not have given two hoots about the facts or the law. They should have simply arrived at a condemnation of Zimmerman even before opening arguments.

Sharpton’s way not only fails to promote justice, it wholly undermines justice. For it encourages juries everywhere to develop a predisposition toward the conclusions they are to reach, regardless of what they hear in the courtroom. That is exactly the opposite of what our system encourages.

We have no idea if Sharpton himself believes deep down in this rush to guilt. We do know that his opinions on how the system ought to work seem to have far less to do with the facts of a case than in the potential for societal change on the heels of the results. After the fateful Rodney King case, in which police officers charged with beating King were acquitted and more than 60 died in riots thereafter, he said, “History will record that it was Rodney King’s beating and his actions that made America deal with the excessive misconduct of law enforcement.”

It’s critical to have advocates for persecuted minorities, and we recognize the need to speak one’s convictions. If Sharpton believes that the facts in this case — which, by the way, almost no one knows in full besides Zimmerman — are reflective of discrimination and broken race relations, he’s perfectly within his rights to say so.

What he doesn’t have, however, is a monopoly either on the facts, or on how courtroom justice ought be carried out. There were many, many legal experts who thought that the facts as presented by the prosecutors were on the weak side for either a second-degree murder or manslaughter conviction. Others thought the district attorney’s office may have had winning facts but didn’t present them in a sufficiently powerful manner.

To turn the focus on the jury is exactly what Sharpton should not want — the ultimate test of a criminal case in our country is an evenhanded determination of the facts before the jury and whether those facts prove a legislatively defined crime beyond a reasonable doubt.  

Of course the system doesn’t always produce justice. No one says it does. We don’t know for sure, and we probably never will, whether it worked here to produce the most just result. But there are few Americans who would trade our form of jurisprudence for any other; it is the system that works more often than any other. 

It is not the role of jury and judge to force outcomes that would be culturally convenient. Sharpton’s way would turn the American courtroom into a referendum on social issues. That is one of the many things due process protections let us avoid. 

Yes, let’s utilize this moment to have discourse about race and other important societal issues raised by the case. But let’s leave the jurors and due process out of it.  Those protections have enabled countless minorities to receive fair trials through the decades, and if we believe in and support the system, even with its many foibles, it will continue to do so.