First of all, I have to admit up front that I had not been following the Zimmerman trial at all until the Not Guilty verdict flooded my Twitter feed and Facebook page. The case was just too common, too parochial and had attracted the type of Americans who normally don’t read the more cerebral musings found on this blog (if you get my drift).
I knew it was racially-charged, and that it was taking place in the South, but other than that I had really been in the dark about the relevant details. Nevertheless, you’re gonna get my two cents.
Here are the details that I have found relevant. Some of them may not, at first glance, seem relevant because they don’t even pertain to the Zimmerman-Martin case at all, but stay with me:
- George Zimmerman identifies as a Hispanic, not a white person, and is a registered, tried-and-true member of the Democratic Party. I bring this up first and foremost because race in this country has become an odd thing, to say the least. Perhaps it always has been. See Dr Delacroix’s ethnographic musings on race in America here for more on race in the US.
- In Jacksonville (also in Florida), a black woman was sentenced to 20 years in prison by a judge (not a jury) for firing warning shots at her estranged (and black) husband. It is unclear if the woman had a prior criminal record.* She was seeking a restraining order against the man and her defense team used the same “Stand Your Ground” laws used by Zimmerman’s team.** The trial was taking place at the same time as the Zimmerman one.
- In Miller Place, an affluent, predominantly white hamlet of Long Island in New York City, a black man was convicted by a jury of killing an unarmed white teenager who showed up at the black man’s house in the early hours of the morning and was threatening to assault the man’s son. The white teenager, now dead, had been friends with the black man’s teenage son.
All three of the verdicts were handed down over the weekend. I take away a couple of things about American society from these three cases. Firstly, the only white person involved in any of these cases directly was an unarmed teenager who got shot in the face. Secondly, America still has a long way to go before racism becomes more irrelevant than relevant. Jim Crow ended in the late 1960s, but its legacy of state-sponsored racism lives on in a number of ways that I don’t want to list here (feel free to do so in the ‘comments’ section).
Thirdly, and perhaps more importantly, I think that, were the woman from Jacksonville to have received a trial by jury (and it is still unclear to me why she did not get this constitutional right), she would have been found Not Guilty. Given this speculation, and given the large amount of ignorance about each of these cases on my part, I still have to conclude that the juries made the right decision.
Tocqueville once wrote about the unique trial by jury system found in the United States and argued that it was the jury itself which guaranteed liberty and freedom in the United States. Were this unique system ever to be removed from the legal system, Tocqueville mused, it would signify the beginning of the end of the American experiment in self-government. The right to be judged by one’s peers, instead of by a member of the court, is a right too few Americans appreciate enough. The trial by jury is not perfect, not by a long shot, but it is also no accident that liberty, tranquility and prosperity reign prominently in the few societies where it has been implemented.
*[Update: the woman had no prior criminal record]
**[Update: the Zimmerman team did not use the “Stand Your Ground” law of Florida]