Wednesday, April 25, 2018
News Roundup

Even in a case as big as 'stand your ground,' step back and let the system work

Now seems like as good a time as any to start treating the shooting in Sanford like a normal court case, another sad tragedy ready to work its way through the system on the way to justice.

I'm ready if you are.

Of course, normal is a relative term in our post-O.J., Casey Anthony-obsessed, 24-hour-mad-scramble-for-news world. But already, there are signs.

After weeks of outrage and heated debate, George Zimmerman faces a second-degree murder charge in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed 17-year-old out walking on a February night.

Given the intense emotion around this case, maybe it wasn't a surprise to hear some consternation when a Seminole County circuit judge made the standard decision about granting him reasonable bail.

But when our admittedly imperfect justice system works, we're not supposed to routinely jail defendants who are not a flight risk or a danger. We're also not supposed to use jail to punish people before a jury has had its say, even in a case this hard-felt.

The judge has opened the court file that was previously sealed, though the bulk of the kind of information normally reported in criminal cases you care about remains secret.

It's a step, anyway. Intense interest and an early dearth of actual facts during the investigation sparked too much speculation and assumption from all sides.

There will be the argument that too much information will make it impossible to pick a jury not already saturated with "facts" that may or may not be admissible in court. Having watched more than a few high-profile (and yes, tediously long) jury selections, I've been surprised at how skillful judges and lawyers are at getting enough citizens who will swear to consider only the law and the evidence in that courtroom.

And hey, Casey Anthony's case may not have turned out like a lot of people expected — or wanted — but no one can say the jury was swayed by her pretrial conviction in the court of public opinion.

Also this week the Sanford City Commission voted not to accept the resignation of Bill Lee, the police chief who cited Florida's infamous "stand your ground" law that says you don't have to look for alternatives to shooting someone if you feel threatened with death or serious harm. Lee said he didn't believe there was probable cause to arrest Zimmerman, who says he shot in self-defense.

(Interesting side note: Also in the law on "justifiable use of force" is a detail the National Rifle Association must have just eaten up with a spoon: It says anyone found to have been wrongly charged gets lawyer fees, court costs and lost income. No threat there to keep police and prosecutors from using their judgement, right?)

(One more side note: Letting the system work as this case heads to trial doesn't mean we shouldn't also keep looking hard at the questionable law that got us here.)

So that considered vote to hold off on a decision about the police chief until an investigation is done sounds about right, if you prefer due process to knee-jerk reaction. If he was incompetent, or motivated by anything beyond legal reasoning, they can still can him.

It's a start, these early moves toward letting the system work, even in a case the world is watching, and even in one with all the implications of what happened that night in Sanford.

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