The statue outside many courthouses around the country is of a woman blindfolded with scales in one hand (and often a sword in the other).
Justice is to be blind to the circumstances of the supplicants before it. Its main goal must be to strike a balance. And if there is to be retribution, that role should be reserved solely for justice itself — not individuals. For that to occur, a certain level of public accounting must take place.
The Trayvon Martin case has become a textbook example of what happens when the scales of justice are not balanced. An initial tragedy — an unarmed teenager shot dead on his way home — rightly generated anger and frustration over the seeming inability of Florida’s justice system to hold the admitted shooter accountable.
But now there is a danger that the tragedy will be compounded by a uniquely modern circumstance — a media-political spectacle that could impair George Zimmerman’s own constitutional rights. This would destroy any possibility of justice being delivered.
How did we get to this point?
Anger didn’t arise just because George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin on Feb. 26 as Martin returned to his father’s house after picking up Skittles and an iced tea. Zimmerman was on the phone with 911; The operator urged him not to pursue Martin. What created the grounds for outrage was the shooter’s release after his claim of self-defense was seemingly accepted at face value by the authorities. The Sanford police pointed to Florida’s self-defense statute, as limiting their actions. Could this be true? America wondered.
In fact, the “Stand Your Ground” law almost invites the system to turn what otherwise might be a “he said-he said” situation into a “he said-he dead” — with the tie breaker going to the survivor.
The law grants immunity from arrest and prosecution to those asserting a self-defense claim. Thus, even though the initial police investigator, Chris Serino, reportedly didn’t believe Zimmerman’s account of events and urged manslaughter charges be brought, the state attorney apparently didn’t believe there was enough evidence to win a prosecution.
It took three weeks for heightened media focus to force 1) the U.S. Justice Department to open an inquiry and 2) a state grand jury to be empaneled. At that point, officially speaking, the public accounting began. True, Zimmerman has yet to be arrested, but that proves nothing. The wheels of justice were moving, slowly, but there was some form of balance at work.
And almost immediately, it started to tip the other way.
The Rev. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson got involved, two men with histories — to say the least — of stoking racial controversy. More significantly, both are liberal Democratic politicians. When such individuals become the face of a cause, it’s no surprise that the brief apolitical consensus on the nature of the tragedy began to dissipate.
The March 23 10,000-person rally in Sanford was understandable. But, a day before, Trayvon’s parents were flown up to New York City for a huge rally, their private pain practically hijacked by the already-in-place Occupy Wall Street movement.
From the rallies, the parents were next brought to Washington, D.C., for an ad hoc congressional hearing.
And then the media exploded — unhelpfully aided by Sharpton, who continued to organize rallies while covering them as an MSNBC host.
Supporters of Martin and Zimmerman began selectively leaking to the media, with differing anonymous “witnesses” appearing, and videos that may or may not prove whether Zimmerman was injured in his physical altercation with Martin. The dead teenager’s privacy was violated with the hacking of his Twitter account — trying to suggest that he had violent tendencies.
And, speaking of social media, an address wrongly attributed to Zimmerman was repeatedly distributed on Twitter — including by filmmaker Spike Lee. The elderly couple who actually lived at the residence were harassed.
The mantra most associated with Sharpton’s National Action Network is, “No justice, no peace.” But for the American judicial system to work effectively, that should be turned around — no peace, no justice. Justice can’t operate in a chaotic, reality-show environment.
An accused — who, it should be noted, doesn’t yet exist — has a constitutional right to a fair trial. But is it too late for that? With not just Sanford, but all of Florida in the eye of a media hurricane, any prospective jury is already tainted. If Zimmerman is charged, can his lawyers declare that it’s impossible to get a fair trial? Even if he were convicted, would the media spectacle be enough to get a conviction overturned on appeal?
It’s sad to even consider such a prospect, but one must. And were that to happen, then it would be a tragedy triply compounded: a needless death, followed by the impotence of local authorities and, finally, a poisoning of the well by national media and political elites. More people than George Zimmerman would be responsible for that betrayal of justice.
Robert A. George is a New York Post editorial writer.