The Lord saw it, and it displeased him
that there was no justice.
He saw that there was no one,
and was appalled that there was no one to intervene;
so his own arm brought him victory,
and his righteousness upheld him.
He put on righteousness like a breastplate,
and a helmet of salvation on his head;
he put on garments of vengeance for clothing,
and wrapped himself in fury as in a mantle.
According to their deeds, so will he repay;
wrath to his adversaries, requital to his enemies;
to the coastlands he will render requital. (Isaiah 59:15b-18, NRSV)
I, like many of my friends and colleagues, am devastated and disappointed as a result of Saturday night’s verdict in the Trayvon Martin cased. The 18 months of waiting, the intense media scrutiny, the charged testimony, and the 16 1/2 hours of deliberations brought back a not-guilty verdict and released George Zimmerman. The thousands of hours of interviews, the fervor and anticipation in social media, and the attention to the minutia of race relations, community engagement and social stereotypes all lead to a seemingly forgone conclusion: George Zimmerman legally killed an unarmed teenager.
I tell you, I am disappointed……but not surprised. I am not surprised because what could a jury do when the prosecution argues none of the central factors that define the case, race, vigilantism and poor investigation? In a conversation with a dear friend and colleague, I expressed to him my utter dissatisfaction with the prosecution in the case. “They haven’t even proven to me that George Zimmerman is guilty, and I already believe he is!”, I told him. The prosecution was not prepared, organized or even thorough in their execution of the case. Unprepared witnesses, unclear strategy, and no mention of the key factors of the crime (racial profiling for one) defined the character of the prosecution’s case. You can’t win if the jury does not have a clear understanding of your theory of the crime.
And since I am talking about the dynamics of the law and the case, let me take a minute to define the difference between being guilty as a verdict of a court of law versus the actually committing of a crime. You see, in our system of jurisprudence, the evidence and the law are the only factors for consideration in order to prove the ‘guilt’ or ‘innocence’ of a defendant. The job of the prosecuting attorney is to arrange the evidence in such a way as to ‘reconstruct’ a narrative of the crime placing the defendant as the one who is centrally responsible for both the evidence and the crime. This is actually a huge responsibility since the only job of the defense is to offer a ‘reasonable doubt’ to the prosecution’s case. Defendant’s have no real burden of proof other than to discount what may take months or years for the prosecution to put together as the narrative, given the evidence.
What this system does not give is a guarantee that the one ruled guilty is actually the one who committed the crime. This system of jurisprudence offers the ‘faith’ that if the evidentiary hearing is sufficient enough that a jury of ‘peers’ believes a particular theory of the crime, then justice is served. This system can only give assurance based upon a “preponderance of the evidence.” However, this system is likely to get it right as much as it likely to get it wrong. For one who masters the elements of trial law, jury selection, and storytelling can convince a court (within reason) of their theory of the crime and thus get someone acquitted who may have actually committed the crime (see OJ, Casey Anthony, and any number of Jim Crow ‘trials’, etc.).
Given my skewed understanding, I started reflecting on the results of the case and listening to the press conferences of both the prosecution and the defense on Saturday night. What I wrestled with deeply disturbed me. For one, why is it that the prosecution in Florida (or any state for that matter) is always so effective when the defendants are represented by public defenders or cheap legal representation, but not so when there is ‘good’ legal representation? Why is it that under ‘normal’ circumstances, the prosecution is often so confident in their theory of the crime, that they bully defendants into plea deals so that they never set foot into a court room? Why is it that a ‘typical’ prosecution often gets away with certain ‘tricks’ that are overlooked by inexperienced defense attorneys and trial weary judges only to the detriment of the defendant’s fair hearing before the law?
I think that ultimately, the Zimmerman/Martin affair has revealed the underlying problem with our system of ‘justice’. It is the same problem that was brought to light in the OJ Simpson case, the Casey Anthony case and many of the other high profile cases that result in a prosecution’s failure to prove the case. It is brought to light in any high profile, well-heeled defendant is brought before a court of law to be held accountable for some act. In those instances, the respective prosecutions are forced to bring their ‘A’ game, because so many people count on them to get it right. At best, they are mediocre; because, quite simply, their normal actions against a defendant often involve ‘tricks’ and other mechanisms to avoid an intense trial on the evidence and facts. Plea deals, zealous prosecution and other powers of the state so often overwhelm ‘ordinary’ defendants that there is seemingly little for them to be able to react to. ‘Ordinary’ defendants don’t have deep pockets to get the attorneys that check after prosecutorial misconduct. ‘Ordinary’ defendants cave under the bluff of evidence that prosecutors throw at defense teams. ‘Ordinary’ defendants don’t have an entire world rooting for (or against) their acquittal……
Now, as you may have guessed (by my oversimplification of the legal system), I am not a lawyer or even a legal secretary. What I know of the law comes from a careful reading of some textbooks on law (and a hell of a lot of ‘Law and Order’). I am a practical theologian. I speak to matters of faith and how our faith speaks to the matters of our life. In light of that disclaimer, I can say this: our current system of jurisprudence offers little in the way of the justice that God is looking for in the above passage from Isaiah. You see, justice is first and foremost a divine concept. The Bible is replete with examples of God’s cry and call for justice to be made known among the nations and the people. Justice, like love, is an aspect of God’s character. God is the balance on the scales and the mediator of the morality of the universe. The nature, occasion, and execution of justice is solely the ultimate purview of God.
Like all attempts at human imitation of the divine, the American justice system falls far short of the divine character. Perverse and distorted, the justice system is riddled with loopholes and undermining of the traditional rules that distort the divine position. Not unique to America, the truth is that humanity’s justice is not God’s justice. This passage from Isaiah forecasts the beginning of new vision for Israel. It is a vision where God, out of sheer frustration and disappointment, comes down to be justice for the nation. In this anger, God deals with the unjust to reestablish the plumb line for the nation and for the world.
Just because justice is divine, doesn’t mean we cant’ do our be better. (Love is divine and we spend a lifetime trying to perfect it!) We can do better by our citizens, by our mothers and fathers, and by our God. As long as there are those who are prosecuted disproportionately, we can do better. As long as there are those who can ‘buy’ the right defense to find the holes in our legal system, we can do better. As long as people feel unsafe and unprotected by the systems that are meant to protect us, we can do better. God requires it…..lest God comes down and see about it for Godself!
My heart breaks for Sabrina Fulton and Tracy Martin as they have no closure and no opportunity to grieve fully in light of the continual questions that permeate this case. All of hearts should break at the injustices of our life together. We can and should do better by Biblical standards. For all those who mourn and suffer under our best attempts at justice, my vision is for their healing, and God’s justice to be done “on earth, as it is in heaven.”