America is rioting.
Not all of it, of course, nor even a majority. But a large enough part of the population of major cities, supported by what I’ve heard described as “two of the biggest rock stars on the planet” – Jayzee (who?) and Beyonce (whom I have at least heard of). Newspapers are writing articles with titles such as “Thousands gather across the country to demand justice“. Here in Australia, you might be forgiven for not understanding what all the fuss is about. If you’re interested, do a Google search for “Trayvon Martin”. On second thoughts, don’t; I’ll summarise it here. It’s a simple, if sad, tale. A white guy, George Zimmerman, was driving in a gated community in Florida, US, in February 2012. He saw Trayvon Martin, a young black man (at 17 years of age, technically still a child) acting, in his view, suspiciously. Mr Zimmerman, being a Neighborhood Watch volunteer, decided on a bit of vigilante justice. Whilst the facts are not entirely clear and there were no direct witnesses, it seems that Mr Zimmerman approached Mr Martin on foot. What ensued was a fist fight, in which Mr Martin apparently got the better of Mr Zimmerman. In the last, fatal moments, Mr Martin was sitting on Mr Zimmerman’s chest, the older man on his back on the pavement, and punching him repeatedly in the face. And then Mr Zimmerman shot him.
According to Florida law, and the verdict of the six-woman jury that recently closed the case, Mr Zimmerman was acting legally and in self-defence. He was acquitted of all charges, both of murder and of manslaughter. It is not contested that he fired the shot that killed Trayvon, and it does not seem to have been addressed in the trial whether “he started it” – whether Zimmerman approached and confronted Trayvon, perhaps even instigating the scuffle. The outcome was entirely appropriate to the laws that applied at the time and place of the event.
But a sizeable proportion of the American public, and their media, does not agree that this outcome was just.
Our system of jurisprudence in Australia is complicated, and full of loopholes, and (arguably) favours the guilty over the innocent. An entire industry now exists on the exploitation of loopholes. One can sympathise when a defendant gets off a convincing criminal charge due to errors at law, or problems with the collection of evidence, or a technicality to do with jurisdiction. This system has evolved over years of trial and error (boom-tish) and it protects you and I from wrongful accusation or miscarriages of justice. You can be sure that if we ever found ourselves unjustly on the wrong side of a defendant’s box, we’d be taking advantage of whatever avenues of defence were available, and given a choice between an experienced lawyer who can guarantee a trial dismissal due to bad evidence collection, and another who has an 80% chance of getting me off on the evidence, I know which way I’d be tending. (This is, of course, assuming our hypothetical innocence. But that’s entirely appropriate in a system which holds “innocent until proven guilty” dear.)
But the victims of crime – and their families, and the general public who are listening avidly to the most prurient details of the latest case in the headlines – don’t put themselves in the perpetrator’s shoes. It’s entirely natural that they put themselves instead in the shoes of the victim, and their attitude to the defendant(s) becomes personalised.
It seems that for a lot of people, “justice” equates to “revenge”. You don’t need to look very far, or watch the news for many days, before you come across somebody lamenting of a criminal (accused or convicted) that “This man deserves to die”, or complaining that a six month sentence is less than the victim was “worth”. We, the people, want to see violent criminals / rapists / embezzlers brought into the court, and then we want to see them humiliated, and then we want to see them suffer. If events don’t fall according to this narrative, we get angry. When a case is not brought to court, we (the public, the Twitterverse, the media) agitate until this wrong is remedied (see, for example, the case of Trayvon Martin and Zimmerman, which was only brought to trial belatedly and after a public outcry; and, more locally, Peter Slipper MP, who was guilty in the eyes of the public many long months before a judge found him innocent in the eyes of the law). When an alleged criminal doesn’t act with appropriate remorse and fear and self-loathing in the dock, it cements our understanding that they are a villain of the darkest stripe – for an example, see Oscar Pistorius (whose trial is still ongoing, but for whom “unemotional” became a criticism in media reports). And when they get off because the prosecution cannot convince a judge or jury of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, we don’t accept the due process of law; we blame the lawyers, or we blame the jury, or we blame the police. And if none of these cases pertains, but the judge pronounces a sentence we consider to be inadequate, there’s any number of persons or systems which we could blame.
Judges have a hard job when it comes to bringing down sentences. They need to balance factors such as prevention of further crime by the perpetrator, the prohibitive effects of a severe sentence, and the wishes of the victims (and the public) against the possibility of rehabilitation, the costs of incarceration and the concept of mercy. Historically, many judges err on the side of lighter sentences, and so we get regular outraged editorials about “travesties of justice”. Governments tend to respond to public pressure by mandating minimum sentences, thus removing the judge’s discretion.
What we need to remember is that the courts are not there to satisfy a bloodthirsty public, nor to assuage the pain of the victim’s loved ones. The kind of “justice” that saw criminals being punished as a kind of spectator sport belongs in the Colosseum with the lions. The courts are there primarily to codify and reinforce the limits that society sets on behaviour in order to continue to function as a civilisation. Those rules are set by consensus and refined over time. And the bald fact of the matter is that “innocent until proven guilty” is a foundational rule in our society, and as a society we must all be bound by it, regardless of our occasional need for justice-as-revenge.
In the case of Trayvon Martin, which has trawled up arguments about race relations, concealed weapons, and the legitimacy of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, it matters not whether Zimmerman racially judged the young black man. In the case of Peter Slipper, it’s irrelevant that his opinions and demeanour are deeply disturbing to some. Oscar Pistorius could laugh, or cry, or stand stoic in the dock. All that matters is that the rules are upheld, and upheld equally for them as they would be for us in the same position. Justice is a system, and it’s bigger than any one of us.
And all we can do is hope to heaven that we don’t ever find ourselves caught up in it.