The Limits of Law

imagesThere was a huge outburst of emotion this past weekend as the jury in the George Zimmerman case handed down its verdict of “Not Guilty”, absolving Mr. Zimmerman of any responsibility for the death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager.  While I’m sure that there are some people who favored the verdict, the bulk of the reaction seems to be outrage that the man who admitted killing Trayvon, though, he argued, in self defense, was not being held accountable for it.  How, so many have wondered, is it possible that an unarmed young man was killed, and no one is legally responsible?

It is tempting, but difficult, to try to put ourselves in the place of the jury.  In our system, if there is any room for reasonable doubt in a case like this, then the jury is required to acquit the defendant.   In this case, the jurors who listened to the testimony and the presentation of the cases must have concluded that there was some room for doubt, and did what the law requires them to do in such a case.

This trial demonstrates the limits of law.  Most of the time, I think, the law and the legal system that embodies it works the way it is supposed to work, accurately holding people who have committed crimes responsible for what they have done.  It is nevertheless true, however, that in the history of our jurisprudence, many innocent people have been wrongly convicted, and if that is true, then it stands to reason that a number of guilty people have gone free.  Human systems are never perfect, and the legal system is no exception.

This past Sunday, in many churches, the story of the Good Samaritan was the Gospel reading for the day. It is a story, as one preacher pointed out, that tends to invite our immediate judgment on the people who crossed the street so as to avoid encountering, and having to deal with, the man who had been left beaten on the side of the road by unknown robbers.  Naturally, we wonder how they could have been so heartless.   As that same preacher also pointed out, however, there is another question that the story should invite but which we often don’t consider.  And that is this:  how is it that the robbers were able to attack the man in the first place?  What sort of people are these, who would do such a thing?  And what sort of a society produces such people?

The natural reaction of probably most people in this country, and even around the world, to the verdict in George Zimmerman’s trial is to wonder how the jury could possibly have taken the role of those in the Good Samaritan story who crossed the street.  How could this jury have passed the body of Trayvon Martin and not held his killer responsible?  For me, however, the more important question has nothing to do with the jury, but with the incident that brought that jury together.  How is it that we have a society in which an unarmed teenager can get shot by an armed citizen on his way home?  What is it in Mr. Zimmerman’s life that allows him to become so overwhelmed by fear of another, much younger human being that he feels justified to kill that person?  And, if Trayvon Martin had not been black, would events have unfolded differently that night?

Last week, I wrote about the Paula Deen controversy, and I suggested that what we tended to miss in our response to that controversy was the opportunity it provided to us to search our own hearts and souls.  The Zimmerman verdict — a far more serious matter — provides us with the same opportunity to search not only ourselves, but the heart and soul of our society, as well, and to ask if this is the kind of world we want to live in?  Is this the sort of society we want?  This case asks us hard questions about violence and racism in our culture, and how we deal with them — or don’t.

In the New Testament, there is a lot of discussion about law, particularly in the letters of St. Paul.  There, the discussion is about the Jewish law and the way it was interpreted and practiced centuries ago.  In meditating on that law, St. Paul observes how limited the law is as a device.  It shows us where we fall short, but it does not empower us to create real and lasting change.  That sort of empowerment depends on grace, that is, it depends on a genuine movement of the human spirit as that spirit is embraced, touched, and led by the Holy Spirit.  In short, law can only take us so far.  Where law fails, a genuine human-divine movement is required.

In the Zimmerman case, law has failed.  Whether it failed systemically, or whether it failed simply because the prosecution’s case was not sufficiently strong, will be debated for a long time to come.  But our outrage at that failure needs to move beyond a focus on the jurors or the legal process to the hard questions that the death of Trayvon Martin raises in the first place.  What we need now is a genuine movement that seeks to get at the roots of violence and race relations in this country, a movement that recognizes that — regardless of legal outcomes — it is never okay for someone to end up dead on his way home.  Trayvon Martin is dead, George Zimmerman’s soul has been damaged, and neither is okay.  The law will not save us from future incidents like this.  We must choose to walk a different path as a people and a nation.

3 thoughts on “The Limits of Law

  1. It is also possible, of course, that Zimmerman was being beaten into the concrete, feared for his life, and defended himself. It is quite possible that six jurors, all women, sat three weeks in a courtroom, listened to every scrap of evidence the prosecution tried to present, and determined that Zimmerman was “Not Guilty”. Isn’t it a possibility that justice WAS served, despite the undeniable fact that everyone wishes the incident simply had not occurred?

    • Excellent comment with which I very much agree. The situation undeniably was tragic. The question is not could George Zimmerman have exercised more restraint in pulling the trigger to which any number of people might have different opinions; but the real question is, was he within his legal right to do so? To which the jury, the only people qualified to answer that question, the ones who have seen all of the evidence presented from both sides, unanimously agreed that he was.

      What amazes me is that the rest of the country simply will not accept this. In other words, it has become abundantly clear that many people did not actually want a fair trial or justice served; that in their mind George Zimmerman was guilty regardless of whether or not the facts and evidence said contrary. This more resembles the desire for a lynching than a fair trial. To this I respond with the same questions as the author of this blog, “Is this the type of society we want? Is this the kind of world we want to live in?”

      Believing one could have or should have used more restraint in defending themselves is one thing; that’s somebody’s prerogative if they would not choose to use the same amount of force, but the assumption of the outside observer who does not have the first hand experience or exposure to facts, to determine a verdict apart from any objective measures, completely undermines our justice system and the philosophy behind a fair trial and the pursuit of and belief in the triumph of truth; and in my opinion leaves a much more frightening picture of the heart of humanity than a man who has been legally deemed within his rights to defend himself with deadly force because he felt his life was threatened regardless of whether or not the assailant was also armed.

      What if he did not? What if Trayvon Martin beat him to death? We’ll never know. But based on what the jury has told us, George Zimmerman quite possibly saved his life. Do we really want a society and justice system that does not hold high the objective evaluation of facts and put precedence on the truth?

      If somebody wants to say the jury was incorrect in their conclusion, fine. But on what objective criterion is this based? It is baffling to listen to the subjective conclusions and assumptions of people who have not evaluated the evidence disagreeing with the objective conclusion of those who have.

      In my mind, the calls for a failed justice system because of the Zimmerman trial has nothing to do with an actually failed system but more to do with not getting the verdict they wanted. Would people be saying this if he was found guilty? If not, this says that a guilty verdict would have been the only acceptable verdict which means in the minds of these people the truth here was irrelevant. And if that’s the case then a fair trial based on the evidence alone surely isn’t what was wanted.

      The hard question really should be then, why do so many people want George Zimmerman to be guilty of a crime despite the fact that the evidence points to the contrary?

      I agree however that hatred and prejudice is still the problem. How tragic that the evidence has been presented, has corroborated George Zimmerman’s story, yet the mass media and prevailing public opinion seems to care not. Whatever is said, it’s clear that this is not about the truth. The truth has been presented. But encapsulated in the outcry against the results of the George Zimmerman trial is a deep hatred for “something”, to this I agree. Perhaps a refusal to admit we were wrong? A fear that the media lied to us? That there is real evil? That the world is a place where deadly force may be required to protect oneself? That the right to individual life takes precedence over the collective cry of society for conformity to an altruistic philosophy? That in light of this the current calls towards a utopian ideal is threatened? That fear is real and people should be afraid? I don’t know. These are simply my subjective speculations about something that I truly don’t really know. But whatever it is, this is not about the truth; that much is clear.

      • To be fair I should also add that I do think this blog is correct in stating that it is quite possible the jury simply did not believe the prosecution presented the case well, and that even though they may have thought Zimmerman guilty, the evidence left room for doubt. There are a number of possibilities and I agree that this will be debated for many years. At this point however, unless they speak, we don’t know. But even if this were to come out, since we don’t currently know, I think my overall point is still valid.

        I do not deny that our justice system is flawed. I think it’s the best there is, but indeed it has its flaws. That said, I am just not convinced (yet anyways) that the verdict of this case is the result of a flaw in the system. Unless the jury speaks, without seeing what they have, I don’t know how I could be. What troubles me is the type of reasoning people are using to come to their conclusions surrounding this case and the apparent extreme influence of the media over the mainstream (or most vocal?) public opinion. The facts should speak for themselves, whichever way they point.

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