Friday, July 19, 2013

The Acquittal: A few thoughts.

Months ago, when I initially set up this blog, I envisioned a well-planned and deliberate unveiling for a new online venture in my post-law school life. Back then, thought I would spend tons of time thinking, learning, and writing on cool life experiences and ruminating on preferred legal and political topics. I would figure out the perfect opening gambit, one that would reel in even the most fickle of readers and I would precision-scribe every word in every sentence so as to make me sound smart and positive. Surely with all that planning what I wrote would seem valuable enough to read and repost (and repost again maybe??). And only after all of this preparation would I finally publish my thoughts on...well, whatever came out of all that mumbo-jumbo mentioned above.

But alas, life, particularly a life lived in the United States, does not often afford one the indulgence of planning to perfection or musing on about the neat and knowable. Instead, I like many others engage with my American life with my eyes wide open and it is through my own eyes that I have seen enough of the stubborn vestiges of oppression of marginalized people to know that what happened in that small, packed courtroom in Sanford, Florida was nothing less than the rekindling of the flame of inequity and the triumph of fear and wrong over all.

In the wake of the acquittal of George Zimmerman, I felt stunned, dismayed, and profoundly sad. It is this triad of sentiments that motivated me to scrap my original plans for how to start this blog, in favor of a more heartfelt and unfettered response to what transpired in northern Florida just under a week ago. With so much to be said, and so much being said about the verdict in the case, I have a couple of things to add to (and echo in) the ongoing conversation/debate about what the verdict means and what went wrong.

Self-Defense laws and Children-

Without doubt, the self-defense laws of the state of Florida played a critical role in the acquittal of George Zimmerman. I know this because Florida law does not allow people who are initial aggressors in a confrontation to invoke a claim of self-defense. This means that the law in this state says a person who starts the ball rolling towards a confrontation cannot later claim self-defense when things end badly. While some exceptions are made to this prohibition, none of them apply to George Zimmerman. Yet the jury deciding this case was not informed of this part of the law and George Zimmerman walked away from his local courthouse a free man in the eyes of the court.  Here's why:

Just before the jury in this case began deliberation, George Zimmerman’s defense team successfully argued that it would be wrong for the court to tell the jury about the “initial aggressor” portion of the law. They argued that throughout the trial there was never any evidence presented showing Trayvon Martin had reasonable grounds to believe George Zimmerman was threat or a risk to his safety. They maintained that George Zimmerman had done nothing to provoke Trayvon Martin into a fight the night he was killed and that George Zimmerman’s actions were entirely innocent. I couldn't disagree more.

Surely George Zimmerman could have reasonably assessed that his actions that night could have resulted in a confrontation with negative and perhaps deadly consequences. Not only did George Zimmerman arm himself with a gun, he went out at night, he followed someone who did not know him, he ignored sound advice from a 911 operator, he exited his car, and he trailed in the direction of someone who ran away from him. If actions could be construed as words, George Zimmerman’s actions would sound pretty akin to fighting ones. His “words” would have sounded even more aggressive to the person he followed given that he was following a child.

From our own experience, we know that children are taught about “stranger danger”. They are taught by their parents, schools teachers, and caretakers, to view unfamiliar and oddly curious adults as potential threats. Children are taught not to speak to strangers and to run away from them if necessary. Children are taught to view a stranger as a sure threat to their personal safety and as someone who could harm them and put their life in danger. That is the mindset of a child, it is a mindset that has kept countless children safe as the walk home from the local corner store as Trayvon Martin was doing on that fateful night.

Trayvon Martin was a child. He was a child who did not initially speak to the stranger following him. He was a child who ran away from the stranger following him. He was a child who likely thought that the unidentified man running toward him was posed a threat to his personal safety, and in a more frightening scenario, his life.

Though George Zimmerman may not have known Trayvon was a child when he adjudged him suspicious and ran in his direction, this fact should not matter under the law. Our children are special and they are our most precious gifts, and our laws should treat them as such.

Moreover, as an adult, the law should have held George Zimmerman (and should hold future George Zimmermans) to a higher standard of responsibility than is currently required.  A more just standard should heighten the protections afforded our young and it should reflect our shared repugnance for violence against vulnerable members of our society.

In particular, I believe that all self-defense laws, especially those which involve ascertaining who the initial aggressor in a confrontation was, should include two presumptions, both of which favor a child who dies as a result of an altercation with an armed adult. These presumptions would function similar to that of the most prevalent presumption in criminal law, the presumption of innocence. These presumptions, like the presumption of innocence, would allow the court to assume something about an adult criminal defendant and something about the child involved in a confrontation, the evidence shows otherwise.

Self-defense laws should presume an armed adult like George Zimmerman is the initial aggressor in an altercation where an unarmed child dies as a result of the fight. Further, these laws should presume that an unarmed child in this kind of situation was acting in self-defense. Until there is evidence presented showing that the adult was not the initial aggressor and that the child was not acting in self-defense, people like George Zimmerman should not be able to claim self-defense.  

These provisions would not prevent justice or undermine a legitimate self-defense claim, but they would require more proof to show that the death of an unarmed child was in fact an unavoidable outcome. 

It is our responsibility as a society to safeguard children from violence. Children who die at the hands of brutal strangers cannot tell the story of how their life ended. In times like this, where we have failed in our protective duty, it is our obligation as a society to caste a child’s actions and their struggles in the moments before their death in the most compassionate and affirming light.

Without these presumptions or similar modifications to existing self-defense laws, instigators like George Zimmerman will continue to have no liability for their deadly aggressions. Without some change we will continue to depend on flawed statutes that achieve an ugly form of justice, even if that achievement is on the backs and though the hearts of our children.

Until we make this vital aboutface children across this country, especially black and brown children, will continue to be put in increasing danger of injury and death by gun-strapped antagonists whose actions are protected by laws which provide a perverse incentive to be as violent as possible and demonstrate cold indifference to the state of mind of fearful children who in no way deserve the indignity of being blamed for their own deaths.

Perchance one day I'll have the opportunity to plan and pitch to readers of this blog about the merits of taking a few minutes to read what I have to say. Maybe that day will never come, this is America after all. Until then the pursuit of equal justice will continue and this space will continue to be a venue to share my thoughts and hopefully hear some of yours. Whatever is next for this venture, I can end this entry knowing that I've added my aspirations to the growing river of hope for a better, more loving world for our children. #blacklivesmatter

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