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Martin v. Zimmerman: Where John Carlson went wrong

George Zimmerman's acquittal sparked rallies like this one in New York City. Credit: Credit: Michael Fleshman/Flickr

In the apparently unending dispute that John Carlson has managed to unleash with his commentary on the Florida tragedy [Martin v. Zimmerman], we have him to thank not only for adding to the general confusion, but also for being wrong at least twice in his assessment of it. The span of four months between his initial radiocast and this subsequent reappraisal of the matter is certainly enough time for him to try to get it right.

Carlson would have us believe, in his own words, that his first assessment in March — that Zimmerman was a CrimeWatch volunteer “who apparently did just about everything a CrimeWatch volunteer SHOULDN’T do, such as following the 17 year old teen when a 911 dispatcher advised him not to, confronting him when he had no business doing so, and shooting him” — was “based on what the network news media had been reporting … and it was almost entirely wrong.”

What, we ask, was wrong with this account? Did not Zimmerman get out of his car and follow the teenager? Did not the 911 dispatcher advise him against doing so? Did not Zimmerman shoot the youngster? Nobody, including Zimmerman, has denied this much of the evening’s events.

For Carlson, however, “eyewitness testimony and physical evidence” backs up Zimmerman’s side of the story to the effect that he was confronted by an angry kid who punched him in the nose and proceeded to pound his head on the sidewalk. But that’s Zimmerman’s story!

Unfortunately (in the view of many), it’s the side the jury chose to believe, but that doesn’t transform it into either the “truth” or “the facts” concerning what happened that night.

In the extended discussion of Carlson’s column that has ensued, I started to count the number of times reference was made to “the truth” or “the facts.” I finally gave up. The only truth about the matter is that we’ll never know what actually occurred that night. The facts will forever remain obscure and unknown. And that brings us to Carlson’s second error.

His rant against the news media for having misled the public “about the facts” may or may not have substance. But his apparent assumption that the trial established what the facts are is hopelessly naïve. Criminal trials are no more a reliable device for getting at the truth of what happened in a given incident than are media reports.

Trials are exercises in legal combat between professionals who do their best to make their side of a story convincing. There are continual accounts from across the country of prosecutors who omit evidence or testimony that might exonerate a person accused of a crime. They are matched by the stories of defense attorneys who go to exorbitant lengths to make an accused person appear innocent.

But abuses aside, criminal trials are based on an adversarial process in which one attorney represents the interests of the state in maintaining order and providing for the safety of its citizens while an opposing attorney represents individuals accused of disturbing that order or of harming the safety of others. In the trial itself, it is the job of attorneys to secure a conviction or win an acquittal by whatever legal or ethical means they can employ. Each side will try to present its version of the case at hand in the best possible light for the interests of the people, in the case of the state or for the accused. Each side will seek to discredit the other's evidence and witnesses.

Whether this is the best way to achieve justice has long been debated in legal circles, but no one who comes anywhere near the courts would think the process gets at “the truth.” At best, it can only determine legal culpability responsibility or its lack.

We might all have been better served if Carlson had tried to help us understand the limits of the legal system in trying to mete out justice in such highly controversial instances as the Martin-Zimmerman case, rather than trying to justify its outcome and using it as an occasion to vent his distaste for Al Sharpton and the mainstream media. The bottom line is: a jury has spoken, no matter how much many of us might disagree with what is said. Let’s leave it at that.

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