After it was widely reported last week that George Zimmerman had posted bail and would be free while waiting for his trial to begin, I resolved for the umpteenth time to write a bit about the situation. It only seems right to tackle one of the biggest legal stories of the day on a legal blog after all. Indeed it might be fair to ask why I haven't yet.
To be honest, I have found it to be incredibly difficult to form and express an opinion on this case. The main reason is that I was uncomfortable doing so without knowing all of the facts. The fact is, I didn't know what happened between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin in the aftermath of the shooting. Maybe Zimmerman was a racist, intent on killing an African American for sport without fear of retribution. Maybe Zimmerman was afraid for his life after a youth he had been following as a neighborhood watcher attacked him. I just didn't know.
As both of those versions of the events of that night made the rounds once the story went national, it would have been easy for me to grasp onto one version or another. Maybe this would have been influenced by my own prejudices. Maybe it would have been influenced by the websites I tend to visit, or the channels I tend to watch, or the commentators I tend to read. The fact is, the stories that were coming out were so self-serving to whatever side was writing the script that I refused to buy either version.
Now, it has become clearer with the passage of time that something happened between Zimmerman and Martin which, at the very least, requires the opinion of a jury to sort out. It is likely at this point that no one, aside from Zimmerman himself, has a clearer picture of the events of that tragic night than the prosection. Once the prosecution elected to forego the opinion of a grand jury and went directly to pretrial with a second degree murder charge, it became much clearer to me that, in the eyes of the law, Zimmerman at the least has some questions to answer. And, if it is found that Zimmerman has acted outside the law, I would like to think that most people would be united by a hope that justice is served.
At least some of what has developed to this point in the case can be attributed to the role of the media in making sure the story made it to the public eye. Without media coverage of the Justice for Trayvon movement, the story likely would have died. This clearly would have been a negative for our society and our justice system if it is found that Zimmerman acted outside the law. This is a point which is critical, and I hope that nothing I write suggests that I don't believe the media should have reported on this case.
However, it is my opinion that the media did more than report in this situation and I am still left wondering if the media's involvement in the case has hindered justice or helped it. I haven't been to Florida since the shooting, but my sense is that opinions in this case vary widely with a gap that only became more pronounced as the media inserted itself into the debate. If Martin was entirely innocent, and the Skittles and iced tea image is the correct one, certainly jurors who would want to believe otherwise will now have phantom gashes-on-the-back-of-the-head to grasp onto. Conversely, even if Zimmerman was justified under Florida law in protecting himself, there are those who will be certain to convict him anyway, remembering pre-trial, quietly recanted Today Show videos which seemingly proved racism.
As is often the case in our hyper-polarized society, these very different versions of the story were available depending on whether one chose to receive their news from the peacock or the fox. Of course this isn't a new phenomenon, it is just one more in a parade of situations where the media has drifted away from traditional standards of reporting facts as facts and speculation as speculation, or not at all. Aside from shunting aside standards of ethical journalism, this could have some real world implications.
I don't know who was at fault for Trayvon Martin's shooting. As I am not a Florida resident, there is no possibility that I will have to decide. However the Floridians who do have to make some very difficult decisions about what justice means in this case will have to do so after being barraged with 'facts' from the media for almost a quarter of a year. The media, on both sides of the debate, has exerted a type of power which means that they might have a significant say over the outcome of this situation. And that is unfortunate for all Americans who truly care about justice.