One of the most boring opinions anyone can have is "The justice system has spoken." From the cable news set to the local dive bar, you'll hear someone say it, often smugly, after every high-profile trial concludes.
It's a popular phrase because it's such a useful Band-Aid. It enables us to superficially move on from the deeply uncomfortable issues arising in many court cases, issues made even more present and uncomfortable by the fact that today these kinds of trials enjoy wall-to-wall real-time coverage (something that, despite my profession, I'm not convinced is a good idea).
Those who felt O.J. Simpson was wrongly accused for racial reasons said "the justice system has spoken" when he was acquitted. Those who feel George Zimmerman was wrongly accused for racial reasons say the same thing now that he's been acquitted.
And those on the losing side of those cases ended up saying the same thing, only as balm rather than as justification.
Even President Obama echoed it in his statement after the Zimmerman verdict. Actually he said "a jury has spoken," an even more watered-down trope which only reinforced my sentiment that a U.S. president is better off not commenting on court cases which aren't about spies or terrorists.
Saying "the justice system has spoken" is nearly as meaningless as saying "the sun will rise" or "the water is wet."
Of course the justice system has spoken.
The question is: What did it tell us?
In the Zimmerman case, the justice system told us it couldn't prove he was guilty of the charges against him. That's it. That was the only question at hand.
It wasn't ruling on the clear tragedy of Trayvon Martin's needless death, or on racial profiling, or on whether weed makes you aggressive (?), or on anything other than was Zimmerman guilty or not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
The American justice system, more than any other, is designed to safeguard the rights of a defendant. Innocent until proven guilty, it's better to let ten guilty men go free than wrongly convict one innocent man, etc.
That said, the justice system spoke quite differently in another Florida case in the same time frame as the Zimmerman trial.
Marissa Alexander was on trial for shooting a single warning shot at her estranged husband in a domestic violence situation. Unlike Zimmerman's jury, hers didn't buy her plea, saying the shot didn't meet the stand-your-ground standard.
Alexander — an African American woman — received a mandatory-minimum 20-year sentence. Two decades. For firing a bullet which hit nothing but drywall.
So the justice system speaks all the time. The problem is it doesn't usually have much to say, and when it does it often contradicts itself. The hard work is always up to us.
Unless you've lived under a rock for the past year and a half, you know there's a very strong racial component to the Zimmerman case, driving intense debate to this minute.
It sure seems unlikely that Zimmerman would have reacted as rashly in pursuing a young white stranger as a young black one. Even those who believe the jury ruled correctly might agree on that point.
However, it also seems unlikely that Martin held Zimmerman in high esteem, given witness Rachel Jeantel's testimony that Martin called him a "creepy ass cracka." (Insert ironic Paula Deen observation here.)
We're at a point in our "post-racial" society (sarcasm intended) where any adversarial relationship between people of different races will become a proxy for deep societal rifts. The American legal system is a vector for these rifts — always has been — but cannot always mend them.
The Zimmerman trial didn't only deal with unfair and often deadly stereotypes of young black males. There's a host of racial issues at play, some of which the media is more comfortable discussing than others:
• Because of his Hispanic heritage, Zimmerman is every bit as much a member of a federally-protected minority group as Martin. Where's the media analysis about that? In an increasingly diverse — decreasingly white — America, this dynamic will occur more often, not less. Does it not behoove us to update the old templates for a rapidly changing country?
• In the Alexander case, why was it so hard for her to convince a jury of her right to self-defense against domestic violence inside a residence, when most everyone bent over backward to grant Zimmerman the same right outside on a sidewalk? And — this is the really uncomfortable question — is the unfairness because Alexander is black, or more because she's a woman?
• Are we really comfortable with the idea that if you're acquitted of a felony you can then be tried by the federal government for civil rights violations connected to the same incident? Isn't that a form of the double jeopardy that the Constitution forbids? And don't we all have civil rights?
• From a media perspective, why do cases with built-in racial antagonism get 24/7 attention while out-of-control gun violence in cities like Chicago gets virtually no air time at all, with plenty of 17-year-olds like Martin being tragically shot and killed every week?
Among other things, these issues show us that our courts reflect our society, not the other way around. There was a time courts ruled that people could be property, that women couldn't vote, that gay people couldn't get married. On and on.
People change. Then laws change. If it's change you want, don't expect the courts to lead the way.
If you're against anomalous, wide-ranging self-defense laws like the ones in Florida and to a lesser extent here in Georgia, fight against them. With your vote and your opinion and yes, your money.
A murder trial will never in itself solve complex and deep-seated social issues. That's something we have to do as a nation.
That's your job. That's our job.
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"And you deserve better."
Thanks, Jim, for my new campaign slogan.