I agree with the lawyer pundits who opined that the George Zimmerman “Not Guilty” jury verdict was practically pre-ordained under Florida law. I appreciate the critiques that the prosecution was always on thin ice under the law. True enough. But not good enough. It’s good that celebrities, political leaders and the general public are sending “hearts and prayers” out to families of those killed and suggesting that this incident signals—once again—the beginning of a “national dialogue” about race. That’s important. And that’s not enough.
If verdicts become rendered on laws that are perceived as unreasonable or unfairly executed, we, as a society and as lawyers, have a problem. When members of the public as well as lawyers come out condemning the system as rigged or broken, we have a problem. The moral code of civility that binds us together as a society is broader than the system of laws in any one state. If we feel change is in order, let’s agitate for our legislators to make the changes. If lawyers are not willing to civilly and thoroughly discuss all aspects of the law, and the policy that animates it, then who will do it?
One of many perspectives worth considering here is plastered on the placards carried in demonstrations across the country—we are Trayvon Martin. Yes we are. Every time we are judged by our skin color, age, gender or other outward sign as not belonging, as being “other than them,” we are victimized. And, every time we judge someone else by the color of their skin, their gender, language proficiency, or something other than the content of their character as being “not one of us”—we are George Zimmerman.
Most importantly, as a society, we are the prosecutor. We are the keeper of our laws in this country; the prosecutor works for us. As I wrote in a column earlier this year on the prosecution of Aaron Schwartz, in criminal law, the prosecutors apply the laws on behalf of all of us citizens. The indictment of George Zimmerman was brought on behalf of the people of the State of Florida. So if we don’t like what was done by the prosecutor (as many have vociferously been proclaiming) or the law providing for a “stand your ground” defense or jury instruction—we should do something about it.
Lawyers have a particular obligation, laid out in the Preamble to the Rules of Professional Conduct, to work to reform the law. Take a gander at that Preamble which also states that lawyers should “further the public’s understanding of and confidence in the rule of law and the justice system because legal institutions in a constitutional democracy depend on popular participation and support to maintain their authority.” Something tells me that if our legal institutions had popular participation and support we would not be seeing the widespread demonstrations and condemnation of the past many days.
This is an opportunity to make our justice system better. This is a unique opportunity to remind ourselves about what makes our republic different than the systems of governance applied in other countries. We should seize this chance to refine the laws so that the Rule of Law remains relevant and appreciated.