Perspectives on Justice:
On July 13, George Zimmerman was acquitted of the Murder of Trayvon Martin. In the weeks sense the reading of the verdict, protests have cropped up in many cities across the United States to express dissatisfaction, not only with the verdict of the case, but with the culture of a country. The overall sense is that something just doesn’t feel right when we as a society see that killing a teenager as justifiable. Weeks later the country still remains divided. Some believe that race played a significant role in Zimmerman pursuing and killing Martin, while others believe that Zimmerman was fully justified in shooting Martin as self-defense.
Perhaps we will never agree as a country whether the verdict was correct, but maybe the question we should explore is whether the verdict was just. The divided reaction to the Zimmerman acquittal might be explained by two different fundamental perspectives of justice: legal justice compared to moral justice.
It is likely that individuals who find the Zimmerman verdict fair and serving justice were examining the case through a legal justice lens. Under legal justice system, a very formal procedure is followed from the time of arrest through the verdict of a trial. Every step of the process must follow strict guidelines in order to help ensure a fair process is used across the board regardless of a person’s identity (whether that is a person’s race, age, ethnicity, religious beliefs etc.)
The legal system “works” by defining divisions of power and maintaining a formulaic structure. The legislature writes the laws; the judge ensures there is a fair process during trial; and the jury decides if a person is innocent or guilty. Under these prescribed divisions and roles, justice is defined by every person abiding by the limits of their roles and coming to a result within this boundary.
Additionally, the justice system “works” when it abides by protections found in the Constitution. Specifically, the Bill of Rights are aimed to protect the rights of the accused. The 4th, 5th, 6th and 8th amendments enforce limits on illegal search and seizures, right to counsel, right to remain silent and protection against cruel and unusual punishments-to name a few. Constitutional rights of the accused is highly technical and complicated area of the law and checks and balances on government action have been developed and tested for over two centuries. Therefore, as long as the process follows both the constitutional rights and the proper procedures, it is assumed under a legal justice lens that results are just.
Individuals who feel the Zimmerman verdict is fundamentally unjust are likely pushing back against the justice system as a whole. Under a moral justice system, much larger questions of what is “right” and “wrong” are brought into the analysis. For example, where legal justice asks if a person’s legal rights were protected, a moral system asks if the legal system itself can function independent of ingrained societal racist beliefs. And if not, then a moral theorist’s would question whether the results of this system, which are vulnerable to racism, can ever be just. The moral question ultimately brings into question that as long as we exist in a racist society, the legal system will inevitably reflect ingrained racists beliefs and result in unjust verdicts.
In my opinion, the Zimmerman verdict was legally correct. The Prosecutors were unable to convince the jury beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense was unreasonable. Under the facts of this case, Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law made it almost impossible for the jury to return a guilty verdict. That law, coupled with a criminal justice system that affords the defendant the benefit of the doubt, makes the verdict easy to understand yet difficult to swallow.
Although not legally culpable, George Zimmerman is morally culpable in Travyon Martin’s death. Zimmerman racially profiled Martin and followed him with a loaded gun after he had contacted the police and was told to cease his pursuit. Zimmerman further placed into motion a chain of events which lead to the tragic and fatal encounter. An encounter which could have been avoided if only he had used common sense and possessed a desire to allow the local law enforcement to do their job.
Regardless of whether one believes the court got it right in this trial, it is clear that the trial raises many important questions that we should now consider. How do we define justice and is that definition supported or challenged by the legal system as it now stands? One thing is clear, this case is far from over as we continue to struggle with and try to come to terms with what overall lessons can be learned from Zimmerman and Martin.
Charged with a crime? Your best chance of a good result is to get informed about your rights and hire an attorney help you through the process. Contact W. Joseph Edwards for a consultation at 614.309.0243. Over 30 years of experience and available 24/7.