The most shameful part of the national debate over the acquittal of George Zimmerman is the disregard of the long-standing goal of the American criminal justice system.
The goal is to never convict an innocent person. That's why we have the presumption of innocence. That's why we have trial by a jury of the defendant's peers. Not the victim's peers, the defendant's peers. This is the reason for the burden of proof of beyond a reasonable doubt.
Obviously, our criminal justice system is not perfect. Obviously, race, education and pre-trial custody status are factors that affect outcome.
When I worked as a deputy public defender in Los Angeles County, all of my clients were poor, most were undereducated and many were people of color. The system seemed stacked against them, except for the jury instructions, which included the presumption of innocence, the prosecutor's burden of proving each element of the alleged crime beyond a reasonable doubt, and what we called the “log-jam instruction.”
The log-jam instruction provides, “before you may rely on circumstantial evidence to find the defendant guilty, you must be convinced that the only reasonable conclusion supported by the circumstantial evidence is that the defendant is guilty. If you can draw two or more reasonable conclusions from the circumstantial evidence, and one of those reasonable conclusions points to innocence and another to guilt, you must accept the one that points to innocence.”
Or, as the late, great Johnny Cochran, put it, “if the glove don't fit, you must acquit.”
I became a lawyer because of the 1960 book, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The narrator, 6-year-old Scout Finch, tells the story of how her father, a lawyer named Atticus Finch, defended a black man accused of raping a white woman. Most of the town hated Atticus for providing a defense.
Over the years I've learned that nobody likes criminal defense attorneys, at least not until they or a loved one are accused of a crime.
By the way, I can't think of any elected officials who list “criminal defense” on their resumes. There is a long tradition of liberal Democrats with a prosecution background. Bill Clinton was a state attorney general, as was Jerry Brown. Governor Pat Brown was the district attorney for San Francisco. There are many former deputy attorney generals, deputy district attorneys and other prosecutors who have run for office, but it's hard to identify any with a criminal defense background.
I asked a colleague, La Cañadan Mark Geragos, if he could think of any elected representative who had defended the accused.
“Abraham Lincoln,” was his reply.
The saddest part of the Zimmerman coverage is that we have forgotten that our system's goal is to never convict an innocent person, that our system is designed to let some of the guilty go free, rather than to convict an innocent man or woman.
Other countries have a different system. In the U.K, there's the case of the “Birmingham 6,” five Belfast Catholics who spent 16 years in British prisons for a crime they did not commit. Years later, their murder convictions were reversed and they were awarded compensation. Their names are Johnny Walker, Richard McIlkenny, Paddy Hill, Hugh Callaghan, Billy Power and Gerry Hunter. You won't see Piers Morgan speaking out on their behalf. He's too busy critiquing us. That's what happens when nations forget the presumption of innocence and when the criminal jury trial is treated as a referendum on race.
Also missing from our national dialogue, thanks to “celebrity experts” like Piers Morgan, Kim Kardashian and Beyoncé, is any comprehension of the need to defer to the American jury. Small wonder folks are reluctant to serve.
The goal of our criminal justice system is to never convict the innocent. That's why we have the presumption of innocence. That's why the prosecution has the burden of proof. It is time to honor the Zimmerman jury's decision. That's the American way.