Thursday, July 18, 2013

Race and Criminal Justice: the case du jour

Over the years, I have often been asked to comment on the conduct and outcome of popular criminal trials such as the O.J. Simpson and Trayvon Martin trials. I am a former criminal defense lawyer. One thing I know is that if you have not been in the courtroom for the entire trial, it is b.s. to express an opinion about the trial -- the correctness of the verdict or the conduct of the judge or the attorneys. A second hand report does not tell you how a witness actually comes across, or the impact of a particular ruling or argument.

If I wanted to retain my professional integrity I had to resist the attraction of the studio and the pleasure of puffing up my ego -- a T.V. camera and make-up did not qualify me to be an expert commentator on a trial I was not inside of.

It is also b.s. to extrapolate from any verdict a conclusion about American society or the American justice system.  I think Andrew Cohen from the Brennan Center on Justice does a very good job noting the limits of what a criminal trial is about in the context of the Trayvon Martin -- George Zimmerman trial.

It is data, not single high-profile criminal trials that tell us about how the justice system works, and how it is anything but colorblind.  Obviously relevant to the Martin - Zimmerman case, a very interesting study of the racial disparity in how courts in the nation find that fatal shootings are justified or not is discussed by John Roman at the Urban Institute here. He writes,

Black Americans are far less likely to be adjudicated as justified in using deadly force in a firearm-related death. The difference between rates of justifiable rulings in cases with a white shooter and a black victim and cases with a black shooter and a white victim are astonishing.
In fact, they dwarf every other racial disparity in an already racially unbalanced criminal justice system. The differences are so great that any notion that justice in America is color-blind is at risk.

Regarding the Trayvon Martin - George Zimmerman case, I think I can comment about the widespread commentary on this tragic case:

I am struck by how large a number of commentators on the Internet are convinced that their hypothesis about how the shooting took place is the truth. People are inclined to interpret bits of evidence to draw broad and certain conclusions. See this thread on The Crime Report, for example.

There is a great deal of white racism being expressed in the drawing of conclusions about the reasonableness of George Zimmerman's shooting of Trayvon Martin, the reasonableness of his suspicions, the suspicious character of Martin's presence in the neighborhood, Martin's background etc. The verdict of acquittal is being interpreted as a validation of such opinions.

A lot of white commentary is blind to the horror of Zimmerman's shooting of the 17-year old Trayvon Martin, and how how horrid is widespread acceptance by whites that a young black male walking down the street at night intrinsically merits suspicion. The proposition, "If there have been crimes and the suspects in those crimes were black, then any young black male is a suspect," is, to many whites, a reasonable one; even if to whites the alternate proposition, if it involved crimes with white suspects, and a young white male, would be absurd.

To me, many lines of the commentary such as this help explain why the criminal justice system routinely and regularly reveals racial discrimination through disparate treatment and disparate outcomes that work to the detriment of people of color and to the benefit of whites pervasively -- many whites simply do not see their prejudices.

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