Beware outrage at a “not guilty” verdict

When I first heard about the case of George Zimmerman’s shooting of Trayvon Martin, I had the standard outraged liberal reaction, then I had some doubts, then I largely forgot about the whole thing. But I was profoundly disturbed by much of the reaction I saw to Zimmerman’s acquittal on Twitter and Facebook last night, with exhibit A coming from Greta Christina, who said the following on Facebook:

I have no patience tonight. If you have anything at all to say that even remotely hints at implying that the Zimmerman verdict was remotely defensible., unfriend me and unfollow me now. And get the fuck out of my life.

When challenged, Greta didn’t back down. Among the comments which she saw :

So much for open dialog. I think it was a defensible verdict. Bye

I’m a card-carrying liberal. No doubt about it. However, I think that this case is more complicated than some might wish. We have a criminal justice system that requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Do I think that Zimmerman fucked up? Sure. Do I think that Martin fucked up. Yes. Testosterone is the guilty party here. If these two had been women, I doubt that the outcome would be as it is. How can we judge Zimmerman, BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT? It’s easy to take a position based on our liberal biases, and assume that Martin was the black victim and Zimmerman was the guilty perpetrator. But how sure can we really be? Ok, I’ll stipulate to the fact that Zimmerman shouldn’t have prejudged Martin based solely on race and his hoodie. But is Martin blameless here? The physical confrontation between these two me could have been defused or avoided, but how much blame can be reasonably hung on each person? I DON’T KNOW. That’s reasonable doubt. That’s the standard. I would be more than happy to convict Zimmerman IF I didn’t have SOME doubt about the details of the final confrontation. Doubt is the issue here, and that is the nexus of our judicial system, flawed as it might be. It cuts both ways.

(Greta’s specific response to this one was, “Go fuck yourself. And get entirely the fuck out of my life, right now.”)

I wouldn’t say I disagree, but I have a general policy of unfriending anyone who gives me an “I’ll unfriend you if…” ultimatum.

He was guilty of negligent homicide. He wasn’t charged with that. They didn’t make a case for manslaughter (under Florida law) or 2nd degree murder. All of the sparse evidence showed that Martin initiated the physical confrontation, and he had an affirmative defense of self-defense against those charges.

I think Zimmerman was an idiot who showed some of the dangers of our current gun culture. Any myths that some of you are building that Zimmerman was hunting Martin and intended to kill him is unlikely and completely unsupported by the evidence. That story has gotten fixed into some people’s minds, though, in a very FoxNews-like echo chamber.

Greta, I have posted my attitude, which is that the instructions for murder did not give the jury much leeway to adjudge guilt. The jury also had instructions for manslaughter, for which guilt was (as I understand the law generally) obvious. I disagree with the jury *according to the judge’s instructions* to that extent.

My personal standard is that Zimmerman is guilty. He is also disgusting for various statements and a total lack of concern for his victim and the family.

I accept that my attitude may breech your “anything at all” standard. Please know that if you unfriend me, I will respect you and hope for a time when we may reconnect. We have much for which we can support each other – and our society.

Again, every one of these comments provoked more swearing from Greta. I’m willing to bet that at least half the people reading this will agree with me that her behavior is utterly disgraceful, but I think it’s important to spell out why her behavior is disgraceful–beyond the principle that not everyone who disagrees with you is awful, but specific to criminal trials.

I’ll start with something someone else, a law student friend of mine, said on Facebook:

And having said that, the American jury trial system and Constitution with regard to criminal law are built around the idea that it is better for a guilty person to go free than for an innocent man to lose his liberty. Beyond a reasonable doubt is freaking hard to prove on purpose. And it should be. Sometimes it’s ugly and awful and sometimes it’s clear the verdict is wrong and sometimes really guilty people go free on technicalities. And it sucks. But to blame the entire system over one verdict where there really wasn’t enough evidence for beyond a reasonable doubt? Just stop, yall. Just stop.

More importantly, the dialogue about this law has started in earnest. Get angry about the verdict all you want, but keep talking – because that’s how things change. A guilty verdict wouldn’t have suddenly made the law go away. That’s now how that works.

My $.02.

In fact, every legally informed opinion I’ve read on the matter has tended to agree with the jury’s decision, though some think it might have gone differently had the prosecution not screwed up. Eugene Volokh has a good discussion of the issue of burden of proof and self-defense, which I had not known much about previously.

But even if you think Zimmerman should have been found guilty on the evidence presented at trial, I can’t help but think how insanely dangerous it is to be so outraged at a “not guilty” verdict that you’re willing to stop talking to go out and protest it, demand the government do something about it, refuse to speak to people who even hint at a different point of view.

Because as my law student friend said, the “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” standard exists for a reason. It exists to stop Italy’s Amanda Knox travesty from happening. It exists to stop the government from labeling anyone it wants a terrorist and killing or indefinitely detaining them without trial–which the US government does anyway, but we definitely don’t need to make that any easier, we don’t need to set a precedent that when someone is found not guilty of murder, the government will find a way to punish them anyway if the public really wants it.

Edit: I should add that my reaction to the people outraged at Zimmerman’s acquittal is roughly the same as my reaction to seeing Nancy Grace declare that the devil was dancing over Casey Anthony’s acquittal, except that I used to respect Greta Christina.

Edit 2: Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Where None Dare Urge Restraint, is relevant here, as is the larger “death spirals” sequence it was apart of. Eliezer’s post focuses on the response to the September 11th attacks, and there’s no risk of outrage over the Zimmerman verdict leading to another Iraq war.

But if you wanted me to take a stab at what tangible harm might come from it, I’d guess at an ill-conceived “Trayvon’s law.” There’s a saying that laws named after dead children are generally bad laws, and I don’t see that changing just because proponents of the law think they’re fighting racism.

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