Sunday, December 17, 2017
Opinion

Ruth: After much speculation, just the facts

It always has been one of the absurdities of our legal system that the fate of criminal defendants depends on a jury of their "peers," who must first fail a current events literacy test.

That is how George Zimmerman finds himself sitting in a Sanford courtroom this week on trial in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin before a jury of six women, who passed muster by largely conceding they knew precious little about the highly controversial case.

I've never understood this tortured logic in selecting a jury, as if having some prior knowledge about a case before the court uniquely disqualifies someone from serving.

About all of us — with the exception of the jury pool — have followed the Zimmerman case since 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was killed in February 2012.

Had I been called to serve as a juror in the trial, during voir dire I could have honestly stated that despite knowing many details surrounding the confrontation between the neighborhood watch volunteer and the teen, I still had no idea what actually happened.

Zimmerman may well be guilty of second-degree murder. Or he may not. I don't know. That is why we have trials — to sort out the truth.

Despite all the carpet-bombing media coverage, the hard facts about Martin's death remain rather limited. We know a confrontation of some kind occurred between Zimmerman and Martin. We know at some point it became physical and Martin wound up dead.

Beyond those facts, so far the rest has been up for interpretation. It could be Martin was merely an innocent lad in the wrong place at the wrong time when he was racially profiled by a gun-toting vigilante with an inflated sense of self-importance.

Or it could be Zimmerman was simply trying to protect his neighborhood when he was set upon by an outraged teen and in the ensuing struggle, he shot and killed Martin in a desperate act of self-defense.

Or does the truth find its home somewhere in between? I still don't know.

It was a rather pathetic commentary on the jurors' ignorance that defense attorney Don West started his opening remarks Monday with a very, very bad joke.

"Knock, knock."

"Who's there?"

"George Zimmerman."

"George Zimmerman who?"

"Ah, good. You're on the jury."

Even then, West had to remind the jury it was okay to laugh as if they were still trying to figure out the punch line. These are the same people who now have the power to send Zimmerman to prison for life.

Real trials aren't like Law & Order. They can be protracted, frustrating, confusing and sometimes deliver unsatisfying conclusions. And it is possible the Zimmerman trial will closely resemble the 1950 Japanese film, Rashomon, in which several witnesses in a murder trial offered differing accounts of what happened.

Each witness in this case has a small piece of testimony about what happened that night. But so far there are only two people who observed the totality of events, and one of them is dead.

On a certain level, there is nothing unique about this trial. Every day, defendants face charges stemming from shootings between neighbors, family members, outraged drivers and, perhaps, overeager neighborhood watch patrol guards. In this case, Zimmerman pleads his innocence on the basis of self-defense, which is really a de facto application of Florida's greatly flawed "stand your ground" law.

But what has set the case apart is the specter of racial profiling. Was the 17-year-old black teenager racially profiled and stalked by Zimmerman, leading to their violent and fatal confrontation? In the court of public opinion, it would seem Zimmerman already has been tried on that count.

Now it is the jury's turn — six women admittedly averse to being informed by reading a newspaper or watching a newscast to sit in judgment.

What happened on Feb. 26, 2012?

I have no idea. But I hope to find out at long last.

That's why we have trials.

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