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In an Op-ed published by CNN, Roxanne Jones – an accomplished media executive and journalist who should know better – had this to say about the role played by race in the George Zimmerman trial:
“[I]n the trial of Zimmerman, the prosecution — Richard Mantei — appears to be lying low and taking too many punches. Could it be that Mantei himself buys into the theory that Zimmerman is some misunderstood do-gooder in the community? It’s just puzzling.
Words matter, as we have seen over the course of the trial. So when Mantei told the court before resting his case: ‘There are two people involved here. One of them is dead, and one of them is a liar,’ I was shocked.
“This is a murder case. One person is dead, and the other person is a murderer. Those words more accurately describe the facts presented in the case. There is no question that Zimmerman killed Martin, so there’s no reason to tiptoe around the words.”
Actually, Ms. Jones – there is a reason. A good one:
“The presumption of innocence is a conclusion drawn by the law in favor of the citizen, by virtue whereof, when brought to trial upon a criminal charge, he must be acquitted, unless he is proven to be guilty.” Coffin v. United States, 156 U.S. 432 (1895).
Ms. Jones seems to lament the existence of those who believe Mr. Zimmerman should be presumed innocent, quoting former New York prosecutor, Xavier Donaldson who pointed out that “[Zimmerman], and not Martin, the victim — has gotten the benefit of presumption of innocence.”
But the benefit of the doubt given to criminal defendants in this country traces its roots back to the English Common Law, which served as the foundation for our country’s justice system. After all, few criminal justice scholars are unfamiliar with William Blackstone’s famous formulation that “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” This notion was echoed by none other than John Adams who – while representing a group of defendants perhaps more unpopular than George Zimmerman is today – said that “It is more important that innocence should be protected, than it is, that guilt be punished.”
Of course, we should all know that in order to overcome this presumption, guilt must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt – a standard the Supreme Court said “provides concrete substance for the presumption of innocence — that bedrock ‘axiomatic and elementary’ principle whose ‘enforcement lies at the foundation of the administration of our criminal law.’” In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358 (1970).
Not only does Ms. Jones’ commentary fly in the face of these bedrock legal principles, her analysis is flat out inaccurate. When Ms. Jones wrote that “One person is dead, and the other person is a murderer,” she states as fact a legal conclusion that has not yet been reached by the only body capable of reaching it: the jury.
How exactly Roxanne Jones can get away with saying that George Zimmerman is a “murderer” without his having been convicted by a jury of his peers is perhaps a manifestation of the decaying state of the public discourse. Unless Ms. Jones is clairvoyant, she has no business speaking to the validity of a version of an event she did not herself witness and printing a definitive statement to that effect as she did in her piece.
Ms. Jones asserts that “when an unarmed child is confronted and gunned down in the street by a grown man who’s trained to kill, that’s murder.” She seems to think that because Mr. Zimmerman does not deny shooting and killing Trayvon Martin, he has committed murder simply because Martin was unarmed and under 18. However, murder is defined by the State of Florida as “The unlawful killing of a human being.” The inclusion of the word “unlawful” means that there is in fact such thing as the “lawful” killing of a human being. We call these lawful killings “justifiable homicides,” and we do not punish their perpetration. These sorts of mischaracterizations of the law must be addressed and condemned by society if we are to maintain our civility.
Ms. Jones’ headline is correct in stating that the Zimmerman trial is about race. However, it is Ms. Jones and people like her who have made it so with irresponsible, innuendo-filled commentaries about how Trayvon Martin had to have been a victim of violent racism. If race is Ms. Jones’ concern, I find it absolutely remarkable that she neglected to mention the only actual racist remark, which was made by Trayvon Martin. Maybe, like Rachel Jeantel, Ms. Jones doesn’t think that “creepy-ass cracker” is a racial slur either.