TAMPA, July 16, 2013 – For over a year, we’ve heard that the George Zimmerman case is significant as a barometer of equal protection under the law for blacks. Some argued that the delay in charging George Zimmerman with murder was due to racial bias in the justice system. A “white man” is less likely to be prosecuted for killing a black man than if the races of the killer or victim were different.
The problem is that there is zero proof in this case of any of that. Prosecutors initially decided not to press charges because they didn’t have a case. The only account of the confrontation that led to Trayvon Martin’s death is Zimmerman’s. There are no witnesses to refute it. The call to the non-emergency police dispatcher does not provide any proof that Zimmerman “pursued or confronted” Martin after being told by the dispatcher “we don’t need you to do that,” despite widespread media misinformation to that effect.
This case does not represent racial bias in the system. The real danger inherent in this case is the danger to all of us, of all races, if due process protections in the Bill of Rights are eroded further.
The War on Terror has already gutted the 4th, 5th and 6th Amendments. The requirements that the government have probable cause before searching us or our communications, that its warrants are specific to the places to be searched and items to be seized, that no one be imprisoned unless indicted by a Grand Jury are part of what defines the United States as “a free country.”
However well-intentioned, the Patriot Act, 2012 NDAA, and the NSA surveillance programs have virtually nullified those basic protections of individual freedom.
Now, good intentions on ensuring equal protection under the law for all races could lead to further attacks on the right to trial by jury, the prohibition on double jeopardy and the presumption of innocence, the first two explicit and the last implicit in the Bill of Rights.
Zimmerman might be lying through his teeth, but there is no proof to refute his claim that he shot Trayvon Martin in self-defense. Juries don’t find people innocent. They find an absence of proof of guilt. If media reactions to this case are any indication, popular understanding of that principle is nil. Reporting on the verdict, the USA Today said,
“The not guilty verdict means the jury of six women, after deliberating for more than 15 hours over two days, found that Zimmerman justifiably used deadly force. They determined that he reasonably believed that such force was “necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm” to himself — Florida’s definition of self-defense.”
No, the verdict doesn’t mean that. It means that the jury found an absence of proof that Zimmerman did not justifiably use deadly force or reasonably believe that such force was necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself.
That’s a crucial distinction that we forget at our peril. If defendants are required to prove their innocence, this nation’s unprecedented prison population of 2.4 million could double or triple.
Already, it has become routine for multiple jurisdictions to prosecute an individual for the same crime. The US DOJ says that it is investigating Zimmerman for a possible hate crime or civil rights violation case. CNN reports,
“Even if the federal charges were identical to the state charges, it would not be double jeopardy for Zimmerman because the federal government is a separate and sovereign entity.”
Really? Where in the 5th Amendment does it say “except by a separate legal entity?” Since it is long established (correctly or not) that the 14th Amendment means the Bill of Rights applies to the states and the federal government, why is this case an exception?
Certainly, the intention of the double jeopardy protection is to prevent governments with virtually unlimited resources from repeatedly prosecuting someone for the same crime until they get lucky with a jury or the defendant runs out of money. But that’s just what the government is doing when they charge a defendant with murder and then charge him with a civil rights violation for the same incident after an acquittal.
It is even conceivable that the right to trial by jury could come under attack. While we haven’t heard calls yet for replacing jury trials with something else, it’s not hard to imagine support for the idea after an unpopular verdict. Trial by jury is the most fundamental protection in the entire Bill of Rights. It means that only the people can authorize the government to punish someone. A jury can nullify any law without consequences, despite misleading instructions by judges.
The only thing that makes the United States a “free country” is its Constitution. It’s not requiring congressman to be 25 years old that makes us free. It is the restrictions on government power over us, especially in the Bill of Rights. When those restrictions are gone, we’re no longer free, regardless of how many songs we sing or speeches we make.
We’ve already dangerously eroded those protections. Don’t let outrage over the Zimmerman verdict make it worse.
Tom Mullen is the author of A Return to Common Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America.