Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Reasons and Doubts

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to serve on a jury. When I have this thought, it's invariably followed up by amazement that juries ever convict anyone. It's the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard that trips me up. Officer Jones says he caught Smith with marijuana; Smith says Jones planted the evidence. Adams says he saw Green leaving the scene of the crime, Green says he was nowhere nearby. Daniels says Johnson attacked without provocation. Johnson says it was self-defense. It's not that I can't believe person A over person B. But can I really say that it's not even reasonable to think B is telling the truth and it's A who's lying? Sometimes there's a mountain of physical evidence that sufficiently tips the scales. But often it's simply about what narrative one believes.

I was thinking about this when reading Jack Chin's post (and the ensuing comment thread) on the Trayvon Martin case. Chin now has doubt as to whether the evidence is sufficient to establish "beyond a reasonable doubt" that a felonious murder was commited (particularly given Florida's putative standard whereby self-defense must be affirmatively disproven). I've had similar thoughts. It's not that I don't believe that Zimmerman killed Martin in circumstances which would constitute a murder. But can we say "beyond a reasonable doubt" that this is what happened? I'm not sure.

More troublesome is that Chin seems to think that an acquittal might be good for people of color because it would reject the validity of convicting a defendant based on "impeachment and insinuations about motive in the absence of meaningful evidence that they actually committed crime." Given that minorities are more likely to be vulnerable to this sort of prosecution, Chin argues, permitting Zimmerman "to be convicted based on thin and ambiguous evidence . . . will harm blacks and the poor much more in the long run." The problem is that acquittals are not precedents -- no black defendant will be able to point to a George Zimmerman acquittal and say "therefore, you must acquit me too." It's not as if Chai Vang was able to cite Bernard Goetz.

This observation leads to a more fundamental one. "Reasonable doubt," I suspect, is about whether juries can envision other plausible narratives of the events other than those which lead to a conviction. An all-White jury hopefully can envision "paranoid White vigilante attacks and kills unarmed Black teen" as plausible given the undisputed facts, but it probably can also envision "Black teen attacks Zimmerman and Zimmerman, in fear of his life, pulls the trigger." With two plausible narratives, one which leads to a "not guilty" verdict, then there is "reasonable doubt" and there cannot be a conviction. If the races were reversed, however, and a Black man jumped an unarmed White teenager walking home from the convenience store, there isn't even a controversy about this case. The only "plausible" narrative to the White jury's eyes would be "Black thug kills innocent White kid." An attempted "self-defense" narrative would be laughed out of court. "Reasonable doubt" is not entirely disconnected from the individual facts of individual cases, but it also has much to do with the limits of our imagination, and those boundaries are set by forces long predated voir dire.

One can say, perhaps rightly, that Zimmerman should not pay the price simply because we do not do justice to Black defendants. But the systematic inequality would still remain, and this case most certainly will not be "precedent" that will help any minority defendant.

1 comment:

PG said...

Agreed that it doesn't make much sense to see an acquittal as any kind of useful precedent, legally or even socially.

From the little I've followed this case, I also would have difficulty with "beyond a reasonable doubt" here. So far as I know, there isn't physical evidence to disprove Zimmerman's self-defense narrative: yes he was following Martin, but Martin initiated physical contact and was astride him , slamming his head into pavement, when he shot Martin. I'm skeptical of this narrative -- I wouldn't believe it on a preponderance of evidence -- but to my knowledge it's not BARD. And especially with the crappy Florida standard in which the prosecution has the burden of disproving self defense (again, something that I assume won't be an issue in the follow on civil litigation), I wouldn't look at an acquittal the way I did with Rodney King, where it seemed obvious that the jury had given in to racism in assuming that a black man deserved what he got.

But of course, with Rodney King there was the video in which any narrative was bounded, so the jury's acquittal was effectively OKing cops' beating the crap out of an unarmed man. I think some people assumed the 911 call would have a similar restraint on the self-defense narrative, but it doesn't seem to have worked that way.