This article isn’t about whether the verdict was just. It’s about the reactions following the verdict. Revealed in them were some unjust factors people use when deciding whether or not a man should be locked up.
The Representative Factor
Recap: a seventeen year old boy was shot. The adult male shooter stirred racial bias when targeting the boy based on his appearance. The boy was unarmed. The boy died. The boy was black; the man was not. The story went viral. And everyone from pro athletes to the president spoke out in support of the boy.
From the get-go, the story was shaped and seen as an innocent victim in the cross hairs of racism, and to many it became the symbol of American injustice and racial inequality.
As such, we had sentiment exemplified by Dr. Donald E Grant Jr on the website, The Good Men Project, “The outcome of this case is not simply about a verdict, it presents an existential precedent of political violence that outweighs any conceivable legal precedent.”
To Dr. Grant and many others, this case was much more than the events that rainy night. It was attached to previous episodes of racism and the actors in this case were cast as good guy/bad guy, a dichotomy of good vs evil. Thus, a guilty verdict (which would equate to progress in race relations and an attack on evil) had to be handed down, evidence be damned. Facts and law became secondary when people fed into and bought into this case as representative of such mammoth issues.
Charles Howard, chaplain at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote on the Huffington Post, “After the jury’s verdict came down I like so many others was stunned. Dumbstruck. Silently screaming. My first instinct was to go for a walk and cry.”
He wasn’t the only one upset. Celebrities on Twitter:
Interestingly, many legal experts predicted this verdict. They said the evidence for guilt wasn’t there, and the defense had a good case. But hype took over, and the case came to represent an epic social cause with centuries of history. This is dangerous because how can the facts of a case be heard through the noise and weight of such issues deemed in the balance? How can a man get a fair shake when people use his face as that of the enemy?
A victim’s worth isn’t defined by the punishment of a perpetrator:
Oftentimes, it is considered a slap in the face of the victim or victim’s family when the offender isn’t punished. Also seen on Twitter in reaction to the ruling:
Lena Dunham @lenadunham “No. My heart is with Sybrina Fulton, Rachel Jeantel, everyone who loved Trayvon and has been sent the message that his life didn’t matter.”
And this from Dr. Grant from above, “The verdict in this case has the capacity to further ingratiate into the fabric of America the lack of value assigned to the lives of some American citizens, black boys in particular.”
Does the value of who Trayvon Martin was to his friends and family diminish because the jury acquitted Zimmerman? Would his life have mattered more if Zimmerman was put in jail? More so yet if Zimmerman was executed?
One’s worth isn’t measured by the punishment of one’s offender.
Lastly, these previous two factors help explain the need for following.
Revenge is not justice:
Many are upset that no punishment was served by the jury. “Not even manslaughter!” were the thoughts of some. Their anger has nothing to do with protecting people from a trigger-happy man, but expressed because the man is not getting payback for killing. We’ve come to equate justice with revenge.
For all these factors, millions of Americans expressed sorrow to outrage in reaction to Zimmerman’s acquittal. Many mainstream websites were covered with editorials on how awful the verdict was. It seems hype, representation, misguided ideas of someone’s worth, and confusion of revenge with justice affects swaths of Americans’ ideas of justice.
I’m thankful this case also exemplified a benefit of the U.S. justice system: the built-in buffer against such sways. Under such emotive auspices, these people preferred a man go to prison with what appears was inadequate evidence. I am grateful that a body of jurors, withheld from the mass media and trial by public opinion, was able to make their decision based on the evidence of the case and this case alone.