Reasonable Doubt Protects the Innocent and Guilty Alike

For over a year the death of Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman has provoked discussion, confusion, and even hatred. Now, less than a week after the jury returned a verdict of not guilty, many Americans are struggling to accept the jury’s decision. The reason for this is quite simple: many Americans wanted Mr. Zimmerman punished for killing Travon Martin; the defendant received justice instead.

 Nevertheless the outrage felt by many Americans of African descent is understandable. All of us struggle to accept justice when it fails to fulfill our desire to see punishment meted out to a particular defendant. Part of the problem may be how Americans see the law. Legal theorist Jerome Frank once suggested most Americans see the law as the quintessential father-figure. If he was correct, it’s hardly surprising that many Americans expect the legal system to punish the wrong-doer – even if the evidence is flimsy. Historically the law offered an even greater disappointment for African Americans: the law often resembled Cinderella’s evil stepmother. A miscarriage of justice appears obvious when the acquittal of George Zimmerman is viewed through the prism of historical experience.

 If all Americans are going to appreciate our admittedly imperfect system of justice, it’s critical to remember that the law cannot be expected to act like a parent. The law’s purpose, according political philosopher John Locke, is to protect each citizen’s life, liberty, and property. America has gone one step farther: our criminal justice system demands that each defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty. Yet this is precisely what the prosecution in the Zimmerman case failed to do. The prosecution was unable to convince six jurors that Mr. Zimmerman was, beyond a reasonable doubt, guilty of violating Florida’s laws.

Since reasonable doubt need only be that doubt which reasonable people would consider,” the prosecution could only earn a conviction if the jurors believed no reasonable doubts were possible. The uncertain circumstances and contradictory witnesses made the prosecution’s task incredibly difficult. Zimmerman’s defense was aided by the fact that Florida recognizes an individual’s right to use deadly force in certain situations – “a person is justified in the use of deadly force…if: he or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm….”

 Moreover, Florida law also allows the individual who provoked (but didn’t start) the physical confrontation to utilize deadly force if “…the person reasonably believes that he or she is in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm and that he or she has exhausted every reasonable means to escape such danger.” Consequently, the prosecution had prove that either Zimmerman started the fatal fight, or his fear of “great bodily harm” was irrational. Given the inconclusive evidence, Zimmerman’s bloody nose, and the cuts on the back of his head, the jury’s conclusion was not surprising.

 The Zimmerman trial wasn’t about a father who lost a son, a mother who lost her boy, or a man who shot a teenager. Instead the trial was about reasonable doubt. The trial was about justice, not punishment. At a time when so many Americans doubt the justice of the jury’s decision, Blackstone’s words offer perspective, “better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”

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