Yesterday, the jury in the George Zimmerman trial found Zimmerman not guilty for the killing of Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman faced charges for manslaughter and second degree murder.
Many commentators, like Britney Cooper at Salon, are outraged at the verdict. These commentators had predetermined that Zimmerman should be found guilty of something for the killing of Martin.
But that is an extremely illiberal idea. Our justice system is predicated on the assumption that defendants are innocent unless the prosecution can prove beyond a reasonable doubt they are guilty. Prosecutors rightfully have a heavy burden to cross in order to convict a criminal defendant.
In this case, the prosecution had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman did not kill Martin in self defense. Any objective observer who watched the Zimmerman trial unfold knew that the prosecution did a poor job of showing that Zimmerman was not justified in killing Martin. In fact, the great weight of the evidence seemed to prove the opposite: that it was Trayvon Martin who decided to confront George Zimmerman and initiate a fight.
Much of the sense of outrage over the not guilty verdict is the result of the news media’s false and sensationalist coverage of the Martin shooting. For instance, many news outlets originally reported that Zimmerman had no injuries from the fight with Martin, which we now know to be false. NBC infamously doctored the non-emergency dispatch tape to make Zimmerman sound like a racist. In reality, there is no evidence that Zimmerman is racist. Even when these falsehoods were exposed, they never quite seemed to die.
But there is a deeper and more pernicious reason for the sense of outrage over the Zimmerman verdict. Some people, like Britney Cooper, viewed the Zimmerman trial as just another battleground in the war for racial equality. Those people would turn any criminal trial involving a non-black defendant and a black victim into an arena for establishing racial justice.
Fortunately, our laws of evidence and criminal procedure do a good job of keeping sociological arguments out of the courtroom. And that, ultimately, is a bigger liberal principle that is worth defending.