Within minutes after the verdict on Feb. 15 in the Michael Dunn case, in which Dunn was not convicted of the first degree murder of Jordan Davis, a seventeen year old black male, the social commentators on CNN and MSNBC said the verdict was proof that in America the life a black man is of little value (Fox had no commentary and little coverage at all - a subject for another day). They argued that if Dunn had been unarmed and was shot dead by Davis, the jury would have had no problem in convicting him of first degree murder. The jury would have had no problem in rejecting a claim by Davis that he feared a group of white men in a car to the point he needed to kill him. Davis would have been convicted with little effort.
There is some truth to this. In cases of interracial crime, it is the race of victim that is determinative. It is true that research on the death penalty shows the inequity in charging and conviction is statistically significant when the race of the victim is clear. Itís when the victim is white that the disparity in the treatment of the case is shown.
But leaving this point aside, itís the purpose of what a criminal trial is for that is always lost on political and legal commentators. In the Dunn case, the prosecution had to prove that Dunn with premeditation and a specific intent to kill shot Davis, with no justification. That is the most difficult charge to prove under criminal law.
In the Dunn case, like the Zimmerman case, the Florida prosecutors failed to convince the jury that the accused had no reason to kill Jordan and Trayvon. They failed to prove that Dunn and Zimmerman started the altercations and that they failed to withdraw from them, which is required before you can claim that the altercation was such that you were in fear of your life. In other words, if you start a fight you canít claim self defense and kill somebody because you are losing the fight. Although, once retreat is made, deadly force can be used if the jury believes that the aggressor was pursued and deadly force was required to repel the deadly pursuit. That is what Zimmermanís defense was successful in proving. The jury believed it was Trayvon on top hitting Zimmermanís head against the pavement after Zimmerman screamed for help. The screaming established his retreat.
Criminal trials are about the letter of the law which requires that the prosecution prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Here is the hard truth about criminal justice; it is irrelevant whether the accused is actually guilty! It only matters if the prosecution proves the accused is guilty!
Trials are not about what society should be. Criminal trials are about a system in which the accused stands at the threat of losing his name, freedom, liberty and his life. Criminal trials are not about the victim and they are not about social justice. Juries donít send social messages; they reflect whether the prosecution proved its case.
It is true that criminal trials donít occur in a vacuum and prejudice can be found in the operations of the court. No assertion is being made to the contrary. But criminal trials are not forums for social and political commentary. The Dunn trial was not about whether black life has equal value to white life in America. It was not even the reflection of that. It was about whether the prosecution proved its case, and it didnít on the first degree murder charge. The focus should be on why the prosecution failed to prove its case, not whether black life has value.
But if you want to find a social commentary out of the cases, consider this: see what a difference it makes when you have a defense attorney who has the time, resources and skill to stand up to the power of the prosecutor and be able to force him to prove the case rather than having an under-paid, under-funded and sometimes an under-skilled public defender who tells you to take a plea. Consider this, the Zimmerman and Dunn cases are a comment on the results that occur when the prosecution does not have skill to address racial perceptions of a defendant, not the actions of the person killed, that creates the fear of deadly harm. These cases are also a reflection of the significance of having high quality and competent defense attorneys. Since black males are disproportionately sucked into the criminal justice system and they disproportionately use public defenders, perhaps the real question is can black males get good attorneys, not whether their lives have value.
Dr. Arthur Garrison is an assistant professor of criminal justice at Kutztown University. This piece is the work of Dr. Garrison and does not reflect the opinions of Kutztown University or its faculty, staff, students or alumni.