Truth and the Courtroom: the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin affair

The courtroom is more filled with illusions than a house of mirrors, or maybe the courtroom is nothing but a house of mirrors. The language of the courtroom obscures its actual function. Hence we hear about ‘verdicts’, a word at the root of which is Truth, from the Latin, veritas. Or we hear, in the courtroom itself, a witness sworn in who promises to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God.” That means if one fails to tell the truth, he’ll be punished by God or charged with perjury. The first illusion then is the greatest illusion of all: that the proceedings and the verdicts of a courtroom represent the Truth. In point of fact, the Truth is irrelevant in a courtroom. As Rubin Carter wrote in Eye of the Hurricane: “Truth would not be recognized if she sashayed into a courtroom and sat in the judge’s lap.”

This assertion surprises casual observers, especially those who consume TV shows about the law, shows that do little but sustain the illusion of assiduous police, hard working lawyers and righteous judges with a dollops of American flags and sentimental music. The Zimmerman/Martin case is instructive in that way, because the verdict defies common sense. The verdict is the ‘untruth’ because it was based on a law, the so called Stand Your Ground Law, that is loosely interpreted to mean that you can shoot anybody who makes you feel threatened. Twenty states currently have this law in place. In other words, a law is passed that essentially invites a person to break another law, condoning legalized murder. This situation demonstrates the house of mirrors (or ‘through the looking glass’) nature of the law.

What is at stake in a courtroom? The lives of individuals caught up in an absurd system.  What really happens there is a battle of wits without a commitment to the Truth. “There is your truth, my truth and the Truth.” The lawyers who battle and the Judge who rules on points of law and the witnesses who see what they are coached to see and the jury whose decisions are often the product of groupthink and the legislators who pass stupid and unjust laws are hardly a recipe for Truth. What happened in the Zimmerman/Martin case? Common sense and evidence tells you that Zimmerman, racially profiling Martin, chased and followed and cornered him inside their gated Florida community, causing a ‘fight or flight’ reaction in the eventual victim. That Martin chose to fight is understandable, knowing that Zimmerman was likely to be armed. He must have decided in an instant that it was better to fight than to be gunned down from behind. So, really, it was Trayvon Martin who stood his ground, not the ‘innocent’ Zimmerman, but the law is the truth in a courtroom; merely that Zimmerman said he felt threatened is all that mattered.

The defense must have felt great satisfaction at having ‘won’ and the prosecution a large amount of humiliation–even embarrassment, given the scrutiny–at having ‘lost’. To the officers of the court, winning or losing is what matters. Such trials are games played with other people’s lives and to think that God is the true arbiter in a courtroom, that somehow He will make the Truth known, is mystification writ large. The defendant and the aggrieved family are largely irrelevant; anyone who has spent time and money in long legal battles knows this to be the case.

The above explains why wrongful convictions are so hard to overturn. So much is invested in winning that prosecutors and police will not readily give up their victory in the face of clear evidence. It’s not about the truth, no matter how much garbage they spout about not wanting to have people serving sentences for crimes they haven’t committed. It’s a macho game, which is why female lawyers, judges and prosecutors, tend to see more of the whole picture. Perhaps due to early learning, their egos just aren’t as invested in the outcome of the game. But this difference should not be overstated. Many prosecutors, male and female, are into denial. How else can they live with themselves in the face of a wrongful conviction? The case against Guy Paul Morin in Ontario, Canada, in the rape and killing of nine year old Christine Jessop, fell apart when DNA evidence clearly indicated a person other than Morin. Yet Susan McLean, the prosecutor who tried Morin twice for the same crime, refused to accept even the DNA evidence. She was still certain of Morin’s guilt.

One of the many sad elements of the Zimmerman/Martin affair is the way people rallied against the verdict. They too are suffering from the illusion that truth matters in a courtroom. Yes, Zimmerman murdered Martin. Even Zimmerman admits that he shot him. He murdered Trayvon Martin but, according to the uncivilized law which is all that is of issue, he did not murder Treyvon Martin. If this absurdity does nothing else, it should disabuse many people of the notion that a courtroom’s purpose is to find the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

All this being said so cynically on my part is not to say that the system doesn’t mostly get it right. The majority of cases result in a plea bargain entered into by a guilty (although sometimes not guilty) party. When cases do go to trial, and that is the subject of this entry, the results are less trustworthy. When the system gets it wrong, the wrongly convicted are swallowed inside penal institutions, their lives a struggle to emerge from legal quicksand.

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About ken

I am a former Toronto teacher and writer now living in Vancouver. I work with Dr. Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter, with whom I published Eye of the Hurricane: My path from Darkness to Freedom (Chicago review Press, 2011), as Director of Media Relations and as an advocate for wrongly convicted prisoners. Other publication credits include Songs of Aging Children (Arsenal Pulp Press, 1992) a book of short stories about troubled youth, and Taking Steam, a play co-authored with the late Brian Shein, staged at New York's Jewish Repertory Theatre and Toronto in 1983. Life Without (Quattro Books, 2012) is a novella about a New York cab driver wrongly convicted of killing his pregnant wife. Gary Geddes (Lt. Governor's Award for Literary Excellence) described it as "one of the most brilliant and harrowing short novels I've read since I went on a John Hawkes binge."

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