After a 25-day trial, a Florida jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of murder in the death of Trayvon Martin. Was justice done? That question has dominated political conversation in America. Some persons want to interject a discussion about race relations into the trial analysis. While those concerns are appropriate on a wider scale, they are misplaced when talking about a single jury trial.
A jury trial occurs at the individual level. Juries are not convened to determine social policy on a societal level. The proper question is whether or not the case was tried fairly in accordance with the law. If it was, then justice was done.
Over the years I have tried or presided over many trials. I have always been impressed by the work of jurors. Without exception, they are incredibly conscientious. They devote great effort into focusing on the witness testimony, trial exhibits and on the law given to them in the jury instructions.
You might have come to conclusions in your own mind about whether or not the outcome of the trial was just. However, we all likely know far less about the trial than we may think.
Everyone gets their news from various sources. Every news organization reports in a manner that leans a certain way. Some are conservative, others liberal. Reporters distill a day’s worth of trial testimony into a brief report of what they thought was the most important — or perhaps most sensational — part of the day. Commentators then try to persuade us as to what it all means.
Jurors receive information directly and unfiltered. They personally hear every word spoken including testimony, opening statements and closing arguments. They see every exhibit. They listen to all of the judge’s rulings and instructions. They also take an oath to follow the law’s requirements. They don’t hear from pundits who put their own “spin” on what the trial is about.
Jurors, not reporters or commentators, are told that they are not to allow bias, prejudice or sympathy to affect their decisions. Only jurors are instructed to, “Base your verdict entirely upon the evidence, which has been received in court, and upon the law, which has been given to you in the instructions.”
Jurors are to decide cases based on the merits — not on outside influences.
Recall the statute of “Lady Justice.” She holds a set of scales before her and is blindfolded. She weighs the merits of the case without peeking to see who is before her. The law must treat everyone according to the same rules, no matter who they are, and without regard to public opinion.
Finally, recall that in a criminal trial, the state must prove every element of its case beyond any “reasonable doubt.” This is the highest standard in our legal system. It is used to insure that people aren’t wrongly convicted of crimes they did not commit.
It is our agreement as a society to accept and apply these rules and concepts to everyone so that when disputes arise they can be peaceably resolved in court.
Tenth Judicial District Judge Greg Galler is chambered in Washington County. If you have a general question about the law or courts for Judge Galler, send your question to the editor of this newspaper. Learn more about Judge Galler, or listen to a podcast of his columns, at www.judgegreggaller.com.