Don’t expect truth and justice from a criminal trial

Trayvon Martin
Trayvon Martin

No one should be surprised at the outcome of the George Zimmerman trial. Anyone who expects a criminal trial to guarantee justice is either naïve or defines justice far too broadly. The best a trial can do is guarantee fair procedures for the defendant, not justice in the abstract sense of an absolutely correct outcome–like justice for Trayvon Martin and his family.

Anyone who believes a criminal trial reveals the truth does not understand the limits on truthful narrative imposed by those very procedures, including the rules of evidence, burdens of proof, rulings imposed by the trial judge, the relative skill of lawyers on each side, and the prejudices and perceptions of jurors.


If truth and justice were the inevitable outcomes of trials, then no one would ever be falsely convicted or acquitted—and we know that’s not true.

The media coverage of the George Zimmerman trial turned it into a reality show, a soap, an entertainment. Entertainments have different rules than trials. And different expectations. The narrative is expected to be cohesive, to make sense. There also is an expectation of a satisfying conclusion in which a coherent point is made and, preferably, the good guys win and the bad guys lose. Justice prevails. Applying the rules of entertainment to a real trial only exacerbates the shock and disappointment when, as with this trial, the conclusion is incoherent, unexpected, and unsatisfying.

I didn’t need the disappointing outcome of the Zimmerman trial to be convinced that many white Americans—including many well-intentioned, liberal, white Americans–fear young black men and unjustly and dangerously suspect any one of them might be a rapist, burglar, robber, drug dealer or murderer. I knew that already, just by being white, living with and talking to white people, and growing up white in America. Most young black men know that, too, just by being black in America. That’s the continuing poison of racism that has not yet been purged from our system.

A different outcome, a guilty verdict for Zimmerman, would not have proven the that this is a nation free of stereotypes, racial profiling, and expectations based on skin color. Yet I am sure that, had the verdict been guilty, the talking heads on 24/7 television would be congratulating the nation on its sense of justice. Despite the massive incarceration of African-Americans. Despite the racial isolation of our cities. Despite the unconscionable unemployment rates for young black men and women. Despite blatant inequality linked to skin color.

The narrative of what happened to Trayvon Martin once again proves beyond a reasonable doubt what we had no reason to doubt before he was murdered: Young black men are an endangered class in America. But that narrative wasn’t what the jurors were asked to consider. That wasn’t the evidence presented to them. American criminal procedure severely limits what jurors may know. It also establishes an extraordinary bar to reaching a conclusion—a reasonable doubt. All six jurors may genuinely believe—probably did believe—that Zimmerman was wrong to initiate the series of events that ended with the death of Trayvon Martin. But that is not the same question as whether the jurors believed the prosecution proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman violated every element of the crimes of murder or manslaughter.

Maybe the outrage felt in response to the verdict will lead to a change in attitudes about race, about guns, about self-appointed vigilantes. I hope so, but I doubt it.

1 comment
  1. The Zimmerman verdict leaves a profound sense of unease. I am not surprised by what the jurors decided, given what was presented to them and the context of state law and criminal procedural rules, but dismayed because many of the questions that are on the minds of people, raised by the reports and circumstances that led to the trial, remain unanswered. Perhaps they cannot be answered.

    You’re right, Bob, about the limitations of criminal trials but they are, after all, what we have. We can at least hope for a fair trial, for some semblance of justice to be done. But we have our doubts. As you say so well:

    “If truth and justice were the inevitable outcomes of trials, then no one would ever be falsely convicted or acquitted—and we know that’s not true.”

    And so we are left with a continuing sense of wrong, of a young life ended by one man, and other lives destroyed by the limitations of the world they inhabit, by the history, the culture and context of race in America. How can we feel good about any of it?

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