“It’s no accident that in those trials which have been celebrated in literature and in the history of our consciousness – the trial of Socrates, the trial of Thomas More, the trial of Jesus – the rules were followed and yet the human judgment has always been that injustice was done.”
While many have taken to social media outlets to offer their critiques of our criminal justice system, perhaps the above quote from John T. Noonan’s “Persons & Masks of Law” best encapsulates the indignation many felt upon learning of George Zimmerman’s acquittal. In the aftermath of the Zimmerman trial, two questions arise for not only the legal community that Noonan addressed nearly forty years ago, but perhaps for all citizens:
First, did the system work? And second, was justice served?
Although the phrase “presumption of innocence” is not explicitly found in our Constitution, the idea remains the cornerstone of our criminal justice system. In In Re Winship, the Supreme Court ruled that the constitutional right to due process protects “the accused against conviction except upon proof beyond a reasonable doubt of every fact necessary to constitute the crime with which he is charged.” The failure by the prosecution to meet that standard in the eyes of six jurors in Florida seemingly suggests that our system produced the appropriate, and predictable, outcome in the trial of George Zimmerman. That outcome begs perhaps the more important question of whether justice was served on July 13, 2013.
The system by which we as a nation determine whether one should be confined to dwell in a cage is at best archaic and at worst farcical. The trials of Zimmerman, Casey Anthony, Michael Jackson, and O.J. Simpson prove that real-life courtroom battles are even more compelling and dramatic than their fictitious counterparts like Law & Order and The Practice. The outcome of these trials often depends on the skill and charisma of the party’s attorneys, the latent biases of the jurors and judges, and the legislative prowess of a national Congress that has an approval rating lower than King George did at the time of the American Revolution. In other words, the fallible nature of the criminal justice system is inevitably tied to the fallible nature of those who designed it.
Those of us that are left with indignation and disdain in response to Zimmerman’s acquittal are entitled to feel as such. After all, the criminal justice system is applicable to each of us – albeit to varying degrees. That said, as the days, weeks, and months pass by, the effects of this trial will as well for many of us. For Sybrina Fulton, Jahvaris Fulton, and Tracy Martin, the loss of their son and brother, and the subsequent acquittal of the man who slayed him, will be a weight they carry in their hearts for the rest of their days.
We owe it to them, and perhaps to ourselves as a nation, to look critically at our system.
Jonathan Nomamiukor is the Managing Editor of the Harvard Law Record.
The views in opinion editorials, columns, and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of The Record.