August 26, 2013

KUHN: Making Your Trayvon Martin Anger Worthwhile

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Times like these test the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s powerful pronouncement that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Trayvon Martin’s shooting death by George Zimmerman’s gun, the difficulty with which he was brought to trial and his subsequent acquittal on all charges have justifiably generated a maelstrom of anger and confusion. These events clearly constitute a deep miscarriage of justice. What is less clear is whether this miscarriage operates only in an especially unmistakable corner of the realm of immorality, a place which is deeply unsatisfying for its formal unenforceability. The public outcry at every stage of this morbid saga has been a heartening reminder that Dr. King’s lifetime of sacrifice was not in vain — the tradition he championed of collective civic action in the name of ameliorating injustice has clearly survived, as citizens continue to recognize that they must actively maintain whatever moral progress has been wrought in our nation’s tumultuous history.

But the moral universe is imprecisely monitored by the rigidity of the legal system. The same energetic activism which has forced this case into the national consciousness and galvanized a wide-ranging abstract discussion of morality must be turned toward more earthbound legal details. Reforming statute may lack the glamour and neat gratification of punishing a perceived bigot for his obviously evil deed. But failing to do so would mean squandering a unique opportunity to more closely align the moral and legal universes in order remove the ambiguity that ultimately sanctioned Zimmerman’s homicide. We will never know the exact sequence of events that precipitated the struggle culminating in Trayvon’s death. As the law stands, the way these events unfolded is crucial to assigning legal culpability despite Zimmerman’s own admission that he murdered the unarmed teenager. Reforming the law, then, rather than seeking to nail Zimmerman to a punishment that may not actually exist, is essential to achieving justice.

“Stand Your Ground” laws exist in various iterations in nearly half of the 50 states. Florida’s criminal code holds that “a person … who is attacked … has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself.” The threat this law poses to justice is twofold: First, in privileging the shoot-first mentality which escalates conflicts everywhere the law stands, and second, in requiring juries to accommodate the unbelievable ambiguity SYG laws entail. Though we may never know in our heart of hearts how racist Zimmerman is, and punishing him for this suspected prejudice is (rightly) legally impossible, we do know that gun carriers like him in SYG states are emboldened by the knowledge that they can initiate, escalate and violently terminate conflicts.  Thus, their version of the events will be the only surviving one if they have a true enough shot. It’s far easier to convince a jury that you were in real danger when the only other interested party is dead.

Meanwhile, privately-held prejudices can be acted upon and embellished into legitimate sounding defenses when examined in the context of such a non-standard of justifiable violence. A recent Urban Institute study found that in states without SYG laws, black-on-white homicides were only found to be justified 1.2 percent of the time, while white-on-black homicides were justified in 11.4 percent of reviewed cases. The disparity grows in SYG states, where juries are called upon to make judgments on ambiguous criteria which are more susceptible to subjectively held preconceptions: Black-on-white homicides were found justified in 1.4 percent of cases (a statistically insignificant increase), while white-on-black justified homicides jumped almost 50 percent, to 16.9 percent of reviewed cases. As before, it’s impossible to prove that the racial disparity in homicides deemed justified is the result of juror bigotry. But to rely on such a subjective standard for determining culpability (what seems a “reasonable” threat of harm is different for different people) is to deny that consciously or subconsciously-held biases (racial, sexual, it doesn’t matter) can pervert juror perception and fill in for evidence-based review. Abolishing SYG laws would remove this ambiguity.

The dense and tragic history of American racism starkly illustrates the fact that racial prejudices are deeply personal and widely social phenomena that cannot be comprehensively addressed by the law. But it is well within the responsibility of the law to eliminate ambiguities which give these deeply personal prejudices room to operate in the realm of legal permissibility. Earlier this month, Trayvon’s parents courageously recognized this by initiating a petition on Change.org calling on the governors of every state with SYG laws to review and amend them. Changing statute as controversial as SYG laws is slow work; powerful vested interests have screwed their considerable money and influence, if not their courage, to the sticking place. Adding your name to the list will be a crucial first step in bending the legal universe back toward the moral.

Sam Kuhn is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at skuhn@cornellsun.com. His column appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Sam Kuhn