The gap between what’s legal and what’s just

St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bill McClellan recently wrote a piece about how a cross engraved on the pitcher’s mound at Busch Stadium “gave him an uneasy feeling.” He didn’t say it was wrong; it just didn’t feel right to him.

I imagine that there are a lot of people who have similar feelings about the George Zimmerman verdict. The not guilty verdict may have been legally correct, but something felt wrong about letting Zimmerman walk free (although in all likelihood he will face civil charges). Zimmerman was the instigator of the conflict by choosing to chase Trayvon Martin who was walking home from the store where he bought some Skittles and an iced tea. While it is likely that once the verbal and physical conflict began Trayvon Martin gained the upper hand, this never would have happened had Zimmerman not decided to engage Martin for reasons that are still difficult to fathom. If this had been a playground scuffle and no lethal weapon had been involved, it’s quite possible that a teacher would have sent both George and Trayvon to the principal’s office. Both parties were guilty to one extent or the other and in all likelihood both of them would have been suspended.

In the trial, where was the “suspension” or some other consequence for Zimmerman? Clearly Martin paid the ultimate price, losing his life. How could Zimmerman walk? Basically because in many ways the American judicial system does not work.

Here are three short reason why our legal system is not deserving of being held in the highest regard.

  1. We have an adversarial system of law. Neither the prosecution nor the defense has “finding the truth” as a primary goal. Each wants to prove its points regardless of whether or not they have anything to do with what actually happened. Mediation is used in many sectors of our society; it would be worthwhile to try to integrate it into our system of criminal law.
  2. Our laws are not engraved in stone nor are they worthy of being so. Take a look at who is making our laws. At the state level many of them have limited education (which is not a crime in itself), but they’re clearly not that bright. And yet the laws that they craft are viewed part of “a nation of laws.” When John Roberts and his colleagues on the Supreme Court don their “vanity robes,” they show us all the trappings of a system that may have been delivered to us by a supreme being. The Supreme Court makes no effort to introduce common sense and the truth about what happened into their consideration. Whether it was Zimmerman or O.J. walking, the system failed and all we get is anger and laughter. We need to look at our laws as a hodgepodge of just and unjust mandates. Common sense cannot forever be a bystander to what happened; it must be a primary consideration.
  3. Society itself is never on trial. If a boy is found shop-lifting in a grocery store, he may well be charged with a crime. Obviously he did something wrong. But if he comes from a very poor family, particularly one that lives off food stamps (which may soon be eliminated for even the poorest of families), the boy pays a price and the society that looked the other way when he and millions of others like him need something as basic as food, gets off scot-free. Maybe the legislators who deprived individuals of a basic human right such as freedom from hunger should be the ones standing trial for criminal behavior.

Before the Zimmerman trial began, it should have been obvious that Zimmerman was guilty of wrong-doing and Martin possibly was as well. Maybe Zimmerman did not commit pre-meditated murder, but his poor judgment had serious consequences for another member of our society. We need a system that does not simply let him walk.