The unsuccessful prosecution of George Zimmerman was like a national Rorschach test, where everyone sees in it a picture that proves the validity of their beliefs.
Those who worry about discrimination against blacks see Trayvon Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s acquittal as manifestations of racial prejudice. Those concerned about crime or convinced black citizens pose a threat see the prosecution as a political stunt and the verdict as a vindication. Some Second Amendment enthusiasts see the prosecution as an attack on gun-owner rights. Those convinced that Caucasians are victims saw in the prosecution and in media coverage an affirmation of their belief.
Criminal trials, though, make lousy symbols.
The primary purpose of a U.S. criminal trial is not to reveal broad truths, and it certainly is not to expose social flaws. The main goal is to give the accused a fair trial.
The six white women who made up Zimmerman’s jury knew less about the highly publicized case than did the public. If they followed the judge’s instructions, they considered only those pieces of evidence the judge determined were relevant to the narrow question of guilt or innocence under Florida’s penal code.
More importantly, they could only render a guilty verdict if they were convinced, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Zimmerman was guilty of the crimes charged. If they thought he probably was guilty, even if they were fairly sure he was guilty, that was not enough. Letting some culpable people go free is preferable, in the U.S. system, to penalizing defendants who are innocent.
The issues raised in the Zimmerman trial are of great social importance. The national debate on those issues is valuable. The verdict, however, offers neither condemnation nor vindication of any broad social issue.
On the narrow set of facts before them, the jurors were not certain that Zimmerman’s actions on Feb. 26, 2012, constituted manslaughter or second degree murder. They were not called on to determine whether Zimmerman was a bigot or whether he acted prudently in following Martin or whether he had any business carrying a gun.
The death of Martin raises important social issues. The verdict, however, merely confirms a fact that Americans already know: the justice system is designed to err on the side of protecting the innocent, even if that means the guilty sometimes go unpunished.