By Tom Hall
I believe in our legal system and its processes. I understand the concept that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty. I understand that what trials do is very different from what public opinion does, and from what reality is. Trials determine legal guilt or innocence. They do not determine reality.
It was the picture that convinced me.
When Emmett Till was murdered, in 1955, his killers were identified, tried and acquitted. Then they gave an interview toLook magazine, bragging about the murder, knowing that our system protected them against double jeopardy, so they could not be tried again for a murder they were proud of.
Now that he’s been acquitted, George Zimmerman can also go national, wallowing in the adulation of racists who think that stalking and shooting an unarmed child is good sport, if the child is black. George has a history of sucking up to authority; making 911 calls to report “dangerous black youths;” longing for some role as an important person.
Because he is too clearly psychologically unfit, he has been rejected when applying for police jobs. He has been fired from minimum wage, no-training-needed private security jobs, because of his zeal for excessive violence. But since the trial, without even a junior college degree, he put out the word that he wants to go to law school so he can be an important defender of future shooters who heroically cut down potential black criminals.
His past failures will stand as badges of honor for some people. In an age of media excess, George will be able to make a handsome living pandering to the basest among us. The verdict was announced in the evening of July 13. By July 14, George’s brother, who had been doing media work for George throughout the trial, was on the national talk shows, flogging George as a vigilante hero, and reminding people that George needs to make money.
The meeting invitations and speech requests will start rolling in. George has demanded the return of his gun, so that he can wave it in front of Tea Bagger crowds and let people touch the relic that saved Florida from one more young black man. The ‘honoraria’ will flow into his pocket (and just as quickly out, to pay his attorneys and others who profited by portraying him as a great white hope). At least until audiences hear him speak, listen to his answers to questions, and realize what the police who dealt with him in years past already know – losers don’t make good heroes.
When Emmett Till was tortured, mutilated and murdered, his mother insisted on an open casket funeral service, and the press published the picture, to show the world the truth about “southern justice” and what concern racists really have for equal treatment of those they want to keep separate.
What the picture of Emmett Till showed was a child whose bones had been broken. Who had one eye gouged out while he was alive. Who had barbed wire wrapped around his neck. And who had been shot in the head by a 45 caliber pistol. That picture was “newsworthy” because it showed the utter inhumanity of racist murderers, acting to uphold ‘white privilege’.
A picture of Trayvon Martin, as he lay dead in the Florida grass, was offered in evidence at the trial. All media except NBC refused to broadcast the picture. NBC only aired it by mistake, and then apologized.
What the picture of Trayvon Martin shows was a child who was shot in the chest, while clutching a paper bag in his left hand. What the picture shows is that Trayvon Martin was clutching a paper bag. Clutching it as he allegedly grasped George’s head. Clutching it as he allegedly grappled for George’s gun. Trayvon Martin left DNA traces on the paper bag, but not on George’s head and not on George’s gun. The picture was not ‘newsworthy’ because it showed the utter dishonesty of George’s constantly mutating lies.
George refused to testify, as was his right. So there was no evidence to support his claims that Trayvon Martin attacked him. No evidence that Trayvon Martin grasped his head and slammed it into the ground. There was no evidence that Trayvon Martin grappled for George’s gun. Those were arguments by George’s attorneys – arguments without evidence.
In 1955, the Emmett Till picture helped convince our nation that we had to change the way society saw and treated non-white people. Perhaps the Trayvon Martin picture will help people better see the distinction between trials and truth. “The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” is never something for which any trial attorney strives. Prosecutors are promoted on their percentage of convictions, with no penalty ever for convictions later found to be tainted by coerced confessions or disproven by science. Civil attorneys prosper as much on their ability to exclude evidence as in getting evidence admitted.
The picture makes the confrontation between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman clear – George followed Trayvon Martin, stalked him, and shot him before Trayvon Martin even had a chance to drop his skittles and Arizona Tea to raise his hands in defense.
The picture makes the jury deliberations clear – it didn’t matter to six white women that all the scientific evidence disproved George’s lies. What mattered was that a white or even half Hispanic man should not be held to account for killing a black child. The jury didn’t care that there was no evidence to support George’s attorneys’ excuses, or that DNA evidence disproved George’s lies, or that the picture disproved George’s character assassination of the child, after he had assassinated the child’s body.
The post-trial blogosphere confirms the picture. Any number of white writers have reminded us that a not guilty verdict means that George Zimmerman is innocent. Not one of those has extended that logic to the not guilty verdicts won by O.J. Simpson or Michael Jackson. When a black man is acquitted, it is a miscarriage of justice, often by a “corrupt” or “biased” jury. When George Zimmerman was acquitted, it is ‘justice’ for the poor, oppressed white race.
We have not yet progressed enough for most people to be willing to apply the presumption of innocence equally to all defendants. Few people who proclaim George’s innocence want to believe that O.J. Simpson or Michael Jackson or Casey Anthony are innocent of the crimes for which they were acquitted. We distinguish in our minds the concept of acquitted at trial from the concept of factual innocence.
Legal innocence is not factual innocence. Our criminal trial system is intended to test whether prosecutors have presented sufficient evidence to warrant a conviction. This is often a matter of faith, not of science. Too often in our history, we have seen cases in which prosecutors manufactured incriminating evidence, or hid exculpatory evidence. Our history includes too many cases of judges, prosecutors and jurors building and deciding cases on their personal prejudices or financial interests, rather than on available facts.
And our system has a history of defendants using witness intimidation, destroyed or concealed evidence and, as in George Zimmerman’s case, emotional and intentionally dishonest legal arguments without any evidentiary support, to evade conviction. But imperfection is not complete failure. The triumph of racism in one place is no reason to abandon attempts to end racism in all places.
It was the picture that convinced me. I know that George is legally innocent. I also know that he stalked an unarmed boy who was carrying junk food in a bag, and that he shot that boy before the boy could even drop the bag. I know that the vote of six white women in Florida will never alter that truth.
Tom Hall | 15 July 2013