Monday, April 2, 2012

Trayvon Martin and the Court of Public Opinion

As I follow and participate in various discussions about Trayvon Martin’s death, I’ve noticed quite a few people expressing frustration that this case is being tried in the “court of public opinion”. They feel Zimmerman isn’t getting a fair shake and that we should all shut up about the case and let the legal system do its job. I contend that the court of public opinion is a normal part of our legal system doing its job, and has been since the first time humans were asked to make a judgment call about something.

Those complaining about legal cases being hashed out in the public and media are usually those who support the person "on trial" in public. I’m sure I’ve made that same complaint at one time or another. The thing is, our legal system never operated in a vacuum. The court of public opinion is, and always has been, simply one more tool in the legal system's "toolbelt". Public opinion influences the creation of law, the interpretation of law, it influences verdicts, sentencing, appeals.

Would we really want it any other way? We elect our judges, district attorneys, attorney generals, and so on and by doing so, we (the public) set the tone for the sort of judicial system we want. What if our lawyers, judges and others in the legal profession paid absolutely no attention to what the public wanted, what the public believed? Surely I’m not the only person scared by that thought. Unfortunately, there are many constituencies that already feel as though our legal system does not consider their wants and needs, but that is a blog post for another day.

I should note that this is not just my opinion. I took at look at the law school websites for Harvard and Columbia. Both have courses, centers and faculty publications that focus on or incorporate the notion that public opinion plays a real and vital part in our legal system and that the legal system has a major impact on public policy. Consider Columbia’s course on Law, Media and Public Policy or their faculty member’s book, Public Opinion and Constitutional Controversy,  or Harvard’s courses on Social Movements and Media, Race and Politics and their faculty member’s publication Court of Public Opinion: Government Accountability and Judicial Independence . Obviously law schools consider the court of public opinion to be relevant to their industry and and an important part of their students’ education.

When it comes to Trayvon Martin, is it appropriate that the public weigh in with their opinion before George Zimmerman is given his day in court? I certainly think so, and the reason is very simple:

Our legal system had already determined that Zimmerman’s actions were within the bounds of the law before the national public ever got wind of what happened to Trayvon. The legal system decided this the very night that Trayvon was killed, when they took Zimmerman at his word that his actions were legally justified and chose to not perform a standard and thorough investigation.

Even in the weeks that followed Trayvon’s death, the Sanford Police Department acted in the interest of George Zimmerman and against the insterest of Trayvon’s family. It was not until the public got wind of the story – through media and especially through social media – that the SPD’s incompetence was questioned. It wasn’t until the court of public opinion lost its mind over this case, that the FBI took at look and said, “You have messed this up and we’re taking over.” We still don’t know whether Zimmerman will face trial for a crime related to Trayvon’s death, but we have a much better chance of that happening now that the FBI is involved.

When you have a system that is already biased and structured to support one segment of the population over another, the court of public opinion is vital to the service of justice. It also facilitates public discourse on difficult topics – in this case, topics like racism, profiling and violence. These conversations are vital to the progress of our justice system and our national health. Do you really want a justice system that has no interaction with the will of the public?

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