Wondering what “justice” means in our judicial system, in the context of “justice for the victim’s family.”
Angela B. Corey, State Attorney in Florida and special prosecutor in the Trayvon Martin shooting case, wants justice for Trayvon and his “sweet parents”. I claim no special access to the mind of Ms Corey: she said as much, more than once, in her 11 April press conference to announce the laying of second-degree murder charges against George Zimmerman. Without claiming special access to the thinking processes of Ms. Corey, I expect that ‘justice’ used in this sense means ‘punishment for wrongdoing’. This appears to presume that there was wrongdoing, although in our system of justice — there’s that word again — wrongdoing is determined not by the police or the prosecutors — not even special ones — but by the courts. In this case, a jury of peers of the accused.
As I understand it from media reports, George has admitted to shooting Trayvon but claims self-defence. Now, I have no idea what went down that Sunday night in late February. Maybe it was an unconscionable vigilante attack by a man who hated blacks: much media coverage would suggest so. Maybe it was an act of pure self-defence by a man who has family links to the black community: some conservative media have suggested so. Maybe it was neither as black or white — if you’ll excuse the expression in this case — as either of those scenarios.
That, of course, is why we have a criminal justice system: to determine the facts, as best we are able. By considering evidence. By weighing competing claims. By evaluating the character and actions of the accused and the victim. All without bias or preconceived ideas.
It’s a tall order. It is an order made taller, if you will, by the State Attorney’s performance. Ms. Corey’s identification with the Victim — she held up two fingers in the classic ‘V’ sign in her press conference while referring to her office’s focus of concern — was near total. Before taking questions from media members, Ms. Corey asked for prayers for the prosecutorial team and Trayvon’s family. George Zimmerman and his family, I guess, can go to hell.
It is so easy to rush to judgement — to see things not as they are, necessarily, but as we are. Asked about this case in his own press conference on 23 March, President Obama spoke to the need to get to the bottom of what had happened, but also to a need for soul-searching by all Americans, to understand “how something like this could happen”. “Something like what” is exactly the point that is not yet clear. His remarks, too, appear to presume not just wrongdoing but also a specific cause: racism. I know of no similar comments from the President — no calls for a time of national reflection — on the everyday murders of black youth by other black youth in the USA; or white by white, or white by black, for that matter. No one even asks him the question. Why would they?
We can hope that Ms. Corey’s notion of justice is not as one-sided as it appeared on TV. We can hope that George receives a fair trial. That he is not as good as convicted already — of racism, certainly, and of second-degree murder, probably. Because anything less than a fair trial is not justice for anyone. Not for George. Not for Trayvon and his parents. And not for us.