In Texas you can get away with shooting someone to death if they’re running away with your property. That’s insane, and it’s easy to see how a law like that rigs the system in favour of people with a lot of property—a class that remains disproportionately white and male. However, on the whole, our criminal-justice system is so frightfully racist because it’s too easy for prosecutors, not because it’s too hard. Of course, in a racist society, rules that help defendants are going to help the most privileged defendants the most, and that’s maddening. But that shouldn’t stop us from recognising that the least privileged, the most oppressed, the most discriminated against, are far and away most likely to stand accused. That’s why I suspect that a legal system making it harder for the likes of Mr Zimmerman to get away with it would be a system of even more outrageous racial inequity.
White reaches a similar conclusion, drawing on his 13 years of experience as a criminal defense attorney:
It’s tragic that Trayvon Martin was killed, and I believe that George Zimmerman bears moral responsibility for his death. The banners of racism that have unfurled in defense of Zimmerman repulse me. I would be damn worried about my kids if I lived in George Zimmeran’s neighborhood. But ultimately I am more afraid of the state — and more afraid of a society that thinks case outcomes should depend upon collective social judgment — than I am of the George Zimmermans of the world. Critics might say that view reflects privilege, in that as an affluent white guy I am far less likely to be shot by someone like Zimmerman. Perhaps. But I am also vastly less likely to be jailed, or be the target of law enforcement abuse tolerated by social consensus. Weakening the rights of the accused — clamoring for the conviction of those we feel should be convicted — is a damnfool way to help the oppressed.
One thing I didn’t cover in my post on Sunday was the issue of stand your ground laws. From what I could tell, if Florida lacked a stand your ground law, the outcome of the case is unlikely to have been any different. The stand your ground law was included in the jury instructions for the case, but I’ve seen no other evidence it played an important role in the case. In particular, Zimmerman claimed that Martin had pinned him to the ground making him unable to escape, and making the stand your ground law not necessary for Zimmerman’s defense.
That said, just because stand your ground laws didn’t play an important role in this particular case doesn’t mean repealing them wouldn’t be a good idea. And while I’m still worried about what other ill-conceived legal changes could come out of the Zimmerman case, repealing stand your ground laws seems sensible to me. You can read one case against them here.
One thing I’d to the things people have been saying against stand your ground laws is that standing your ground in a confrontation increases the chances you will get hurt. Sam Harris wrote an excellent article about self-defense two years ago that I recommend everyone read. Basically, Harris recommends avoiding situations that are likely to turn violent, and running if you find yourself in one. According to Harris, the part about running applies even, perhaps especially, in home invasions. That’s for your own safety, castle doctrine be damned.
The one thing I wonder about regarding Harris’ article, in retrospect, is that he seems to advocate that if you believe someone is about to attack you, it’s reasonable to launch a preemptive surprise attack and then run away. (“Hit first, fast, and hard—and run,” he writes.) Does anyone know if that could legally be considered justifiable self-defense, with or without stand your ground laws?
Matt Yglesias wrote an article, which I agree with, arguing that Zimmerman probably would’ve ended up in jail if he hadn’t been able to raise the money for a competent defense. Some people read this article as saying Zimmerman should’ve ended up in jail, but I took it the other way, as arguing that we really need more money for public defenders, and generally need to do more to ensure that poor defendants get a fair trial. (Yglesias’ article also raises another question, which I don’t know how to answer: what do we do about truly wealthy criminals, who can afford to hire defense teams that would make Zimmerman’s look like a joke?)
The last thing I have to say about the reaction to the Zimmerman trial is that it provided a healthy shock to my view of human nature. It’s a reminder that ideas about the rights of the accused are highly unnatural to human minds. When raised in a culture that values them, we mostly just pay lip service to them until we encounter with someone we really want to see punished. This ought to be a terrifying realization, because the rights of the accused is one of the key things that separates the US government from brutal dictatorships.
Of course, I know that separation is not complete, and the realization about human nature was not new to me. I’ve long looked on in horror at much of what the US government does in the name of fighting “terrorism” (and the even more extreme policies advocated by some on the American right, which thankfully the government has not adopted). Relevant: a week before the Zimmerman verdict came out, this article about another dead teenager ran in the New York times.
No, the shock of seeing Greta Christian lose her shit over the Zimmerman verdict came from seeing these all too human tendencies expressed by someone who I would have guessed would rise above them. And when, in her later blog post on the case, she refuses to acknowledge that anyone could have any reason to disagree with her on the Zimmerman case (even slightly hint at disagreeing with her), aside from disagreeing with her about “whether a young black man should be able to buy candy at a convenience store without being hunted and killed”–that too is all too human. And the fact that it is so human should frighten us all.