On Zimmerman and the Law

Several of my friends and acquaintances in the field of law, not to mention so many of the talking heads, have given roughly the same response when speaking about the Zimmerman verdict, which passes for the informed, realist position: at the end of the day the prosecution didn’t prove guilt and (even if this next part isn’t spoken it’s surely implied) so the verdict was justified. This argument has weight because it’s true, but it is acontextual in that it presumes all that is at play in a courtroom is the letter of the law and the formal arrangements of the judicial process.

The problem with this claim as a complete explanation is that it overlooks institutional racism and implicit bias. True or not, and I do think the prosecution was shabby at best, if the respective races (of Martin and Zimmerman) had been switched, the trial would have more often resulted in conviction. Of course this is well documented, particularly in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. That this is the case means an explanation that rests merely on “but they didn’t prove guilt” doesn’t suffice. If Zimmerman is black and Martin is white, all else remaining constant, regardless of whether or not an airtight case was argued and regardless of whether or not the charges fit perfectly, the trial more often ends in conviction.

In fact I think such a simple explanation is evidence of an idealized understanding of the law. I’m not dismissing that as bad, and in fact it’s probably necessary to practice law well (just like it is for me to have a somewhat idealized understanding of my own fields of work). But the rigid letter of the law undoubtedly gets softened by juries comprised of contextual human beings exercising their own hermeneutics and inevitably bringing their implicit biases to the courtroom. The law might be blind but the law isn’t a thing outside of its application – which of course necessitates the participation of people who see always through a lens of some sort. The application of the law can never be blind if by blind we mean acontextual and unbiased, but we have to believe it has task of becoming more aware of, and attempting to account for, its own blind spots. This raises the harder question, one I certainly don’t know how to answer. But it seems it will require public participation, at least at first as outcry.


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