Twelve (x 10) Angry Students

Law school students often pride themselves on their cool, analytical approach to important issues. This intellectual outlook reflects empirical recognition that life is rarely tidy and all is not always what it seems. Nowhere is the aspiration to preternatural calm in the legal world stronger than in the famous film Twelve Angry Men. The movie depicts jurors delving deeper into the facts of a murder case in pursuit of the truth of the matter. A defendant originally thought to be obviously culpable at first ultimately emerges as not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

That sort of detached and principled examination of the facts seems conspicuously absent at Harvard Law with respect to the Trayvon Martin shooting. As documented in the Boston Globe, many Law students showed up for a vigil Monday night in remembrance of the 17-year-old Floridian. It’s perfectly reasonable, of course, to mourn any untimely death, but many at the vigil seemed to have an agenda beyond simple mourning. One student is quoted in The Globe saying, “I think it’s important after what happened to recognize ways in which this country violates the rights and lives of its people everyday.” Another is quoted as saying that the shooting “seems to be a senseless act of violence.” A third declared the shooting to be an “injustice” that “affects every one of us.” Even Dean Martha Minow spoke at the event.

The facts of the shooting are decidedly muddier than the conclusory statements of the HLS students at the vigil indicate. Zimmerman did indeed follow Martin even after a 911 operator told him not to. At the same time, Zimmerman claims to have suffered a broken nose in the scuffle and to have had his head bashed on the curb by Martin, an apparently troubled 17-year-old who had been suspended from his high school on multiple occasions. In Zimmerman’s retelling, Martin assaulted him while he was walking back to his car, and Zimmerman used his firearm only when it appeared that Martin might wrest the weapon away.

What actually happened? We don’t know. It’s very unfair to say, however, that there has been an obvious miscarriage of justice. A special prosecutor is already investigating the matter to see if there is probable cause to arrest Zimmerman. In the mean time, calls for Zimmerman’s arrest seem premature given that the facts of the case are unknown. Why do activists seek Zimmerman’s arrest while any possible charges against him remain unclear?

Some commentators have seized on the opportunity to criticize Florida’s “stand your ground” law. However, as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush made clear, if it turns out that the version of events suggested by Trayvon Martin’s parents is what actually happened, the stand your ground self-defense bill will not apply. And if Zimmerman’s account of the events is true, then is there any particular reason to criticize a law that simply enabled Zimmerman to act in self-defense? In either case, the stand your ground law does not materially affect the outcome.

The case is clearly fraught with racial and political tension. On the national stage, figures from Al Sharpton to Joe Scarborough have denounced the failure of local police officials to arrest George Zimmerman. The Black Panthers have gone so far as to offer a $10,000 bounty for the “capture and citizen’s arrest” of Zimmerman.

One would hope that HLS students, like the protagonist of Twelve Angry Men, would avoid being swept up in the tumult being propagated by uncritical commentators fitting the facts into a preconceived narrative. We should not fuel the outrage by lending the credibility of our school’s name to an effort to judge a defendant guilty without knowing all of the facts.

John Thorlin is a 3L. His column runs Thursdays.

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