Zimmerman Verdict Shows the Shortcomings of a Trial by Media

The New York Times has a story on its front page today about the Trayvon Martin verdict reporting not only that Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law was not invoked by the defense but also quoting a legal expert who calls the law's exclusion from defense arguments "a brilliant strategic move."

The New York Times has an editorial today in which it says, "The jury reached its verdict after having been asked to consider Mr. Zimmerman's actions in light of Florida's now-notorious Stand Your Ground statute."

Wait. Let's make sure we get that one down. The issue here is not whether Stand Your Ground was a factor somehow. It's whether or not the jury was told in its instructions to take Stand Your Ground into account. All of the news reports I can find say no.

An argument can be made that "Stand Your Ground" threw a kind of legal shadow on jury instructions because it affected what the jury was told -- actually not told -- about the acquitted shooter's ability or lack of ability to escape instead of shooting. A legal expert in a CBS-Miami story makes that argument.

That's not my issue. For one thing, that's an issue for a lawyer or a legal scholar, which I am not. Mine is a question about the news biz, of which I am a member. Did the judge or anybody else tell the jury to take Stand Your Ground into account in rendering a verdict? No.

Did the Times today -- in the same edition with its own story reporting in detail that Stand your Ground was not invoked -- say in editorial that the jury was told to weigh Stand Your Ground? Yes.

So what's my point? Am I shocked, shocked, that the editorial writers at The New York Times goofed something up? Do I think this goof-up is a metaphor that is emblematic of a parable that provides insight into a troubling paradigm? Ah, bullshit. It's just a goof.

Even at The New York Times, we newsies slam this stuff out pretty fast. People on the right accuse us of being liberal, which we probably are, but that's way less important a factor than just being in a hurry. I happen to think we do a pretty good job most of the time, given the challenges.

But if somebody ever accuses you of murder, you absolutely do not want the media to decide on it for you. You want a trial. In fact, that's why we have trials. That's why The Magana Carta declared in 1215 that a "freeman shall not be... imprisoned... unless by the judgment of his peers" and did not say, "a freeman may also be imprisoned based on the results of a CNN poll."

In late March, 2012, CNN published a poll showing that three-quarters of the American public wanted George Zimmerman arrested even though law enforcement officials already had deemed they did not have grounds for an arrest or a good case.

Within weeks of the CNN poll, the governor of Florida appointed a special Trayvon Martin prosecutor who got Zimmerman arrested, charged him with murder and took him to trial. So was that some kind of big legal breakthrough? Oh, come on. We need to pay better attention than that. That was a media breakthrough. It was also a political act carried out by people who run for office and always want to get out front of some good poll numbers.

Please get me right here. I am saying nothing about whether Zimmerman was morally right to shoot Martin to death. I'm talking about what's going to happen if you arrest Zimmerman, charge him with murder and take him to trial. Now we know.

The news story in the Times dwells on the quality of the lawyering, with a lot of inside baseball on which side played the better game. Surprise, surprise, a couple days after the verdict in favor of the defense, all of the experts are eager to put their bets down in favor of the defense. And don't you and I wish we could play the horses that way?

I have spent my life in this business, a whole lot of it covering trials. For several years when I was not working for a newspaper, I attended trials, beginning to end, in order to write books about them. The first time I did it, I thought, "This is so cool. I don't have to make a daily deadline, so I have time to pay a little bit of attention to what's actually going on."

By the way, one of those trials was in Florida. The defendants were able to hire a passel of top-notch attorneys. But the assistant state's attorney in that case, working mostly by himself, just happened to be sharper than the lot of them. The best lawyers don't always go for the money.

Look. Given the enormity of the act itself, the loss of life, the gun issue and the terrible racial element, the point I'm trying to make is probably a small one, maybe even a sidelight. But I still feel compelled to make it: A media case is not a court case. Ever.

Go ahead and read the stories, editorials, columns and blogs, watch them on TV and scarf them up online. I do. Just remember: Compared with the precision brought to bear in a courtroom, those accounts will always be sloppy and crude, even from the very best of the media.

Those accounts will always deceive you at least by omission, sometimes by active commission, as in "The jury reached its verdict after having been asked to consider Mr. Zimmerman's actions in light of Florida's now-notorious Stand Your Ground statute."

And the minute they start showing you polls and crowing like they made something happen, whoa! Then you know they're whoring for ratings.

It's not an election. It's not a poll or a market study. It's a trial. If you want to know what it's really all about, you have to be there in person for the whole thing. Otherwise, apply a bullshit factor of about 55 percent.

Gotta run now. As a media expert, I need to get downtown and see if I can put some serious money on Zimmerman to win. I have an inside tip.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze