Trayvon Martin, Matthew Owens, And The Politicization Of Criminal Justice
Steven Taylor’s timely and well-written post about the case of Matthew Owens, a Mobile, AL resident apparently beaten by a gang outside his home after a confrontation where the facts are not at all entirely clear, reminds me of something I wrote just a little more than a month ago when the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case was still a relatively new story about the tendency of the media, and members of the public, to jump to conclusions about in criminal cases that receive large-scale media attention:
There is a disturbing tendency in high profile criminal cases for the public, egged on by the constant media coverage and the incessant drone of the talking heads, to rush to judgment long before it’s warranted. We saw it happen in the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case only to see those charges dismissed when the accuser’s credibility collapsed like a house of cards. We saw it happen in with Richard Jewell, who was hounded, tried, and convicted, by the media of the Centennial Park bombing in Atlanta in 1996 only to be completely cleared of all charges. It happened to former Reagan Administration Labor Secretary Raymond Donovan, who was charged on multiple racketeering counts only to be acquitted, at which point he famously asked “Where do I go to get my reputation back?” It happened to the parents of Jon Benet Ramsey, who spent years being accused int he public of their daughters brutal rape and murder even though the evidence linking them to the crime was as flimsy as possible. It’s happened to people who aren’t famous too, of course. Just ask Cory Maye or Cameron Todd Willingham. Of course, Willingham might not answer because Texas executed him for a crime he didn’t commit.
Rather than rushing to judgment in this case, or any other, we ought to be letting the legal system do its work instead of allowing the Al Sharpton’s of the world to exploit a young man’s tragic death for their own nefarious agendas.
It strikes me that these words apply just as much to the horrible beating of Matthew Owens as it does to the death of Trayvon Martin. As the article that Steven linked from a local television station indicates, it’s fairly apparent that the publicly available facts in the Owens case are significantly different from what we know in the Martin/Zimmerman case, and there is at least some suggesting that Owens (who apparently has a criminal record) may have been engaging in provocative action of his own prior to the attack that led to his beating. This isn’t to justify the attack, however, because just as we weren’t present for the encounter between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, none of us that have written about the Owens case were on that street in Mobile on Saturday night. We don’t know what happened, we don’t know who started fighting first, and we don’t know what was said between the parties other than what’s been reported in the media. It does appear to me that criminal charges of some kind are warranted, though, and the Mobile police are currently investigating the matter. How about we let them do their job?
Just as with certain aspects of the Martin/Zimmerman case, though, the fact that we don’t know all the facts hasn’t stopped people from picking up this story and running with it because it appears to fit into the particular political narrative that they happen to be pushing at the time. In the case of the conservative pundits who jumped all over the Matthew Owens story, that narrative happens to be the claim that racism against white Americans is now somehow the most prevalent sociological problem in the country. Mixed into the narrative, of course, is also the old “media bias” canard since it’s also being pointed out that the national media isn’t covering the Owens case the way it has the Zimmerman case. Of course, that argument ignores the fact that the national media didn’t start reporting on the controversy that had erupted in Sanford, FL over the death of Trayvon Martin until nearly a month after the incident had passed without an arrest. The Owens case happened last Saturday. Not exactly the same, is it?
When you’re trying to score political points, though, the facts don’t really matter.
That’s the problem when criminal cases, whether it’s the Martin/Zimmerman case or this case in Mobile, become politicized. The facts don’t really matter anymore, and there’s not really any consideration of letting the criminal justice system do its job. Instead, you find the “hook” that supposedly proves your political point, and you run with it. In the Owens case, the “hook” is the fact that someone involved in the incident Saturday night was supposedly overheard saying “That’s justice for Travyon” after it was over. We don’t know who said it, we don’t know what prompted it, and we sure as heck don’t know if it had anything to do with the confrontation between Owens and the people who attacked him. But that doesn’t matter to the partisans, of course, because those four words just confirm what they want to think about race and crime in America, and it also helps advance the agenda of defending George Zimmerman who, bizarrely, has became a conservative cause celebre despite the fact that he very well be guilty of Second Degree Murder, or at least manslaughter. I am not going to pre-judge Zimmerman’s guilt, but I think it’s absurd to hold him out as some kind of hero, or representative of some kind of political point, when you don’t even know all the facts of the case. The same is true of the Owens case
One final point. We’ve seem many examples of what happens when politics gets involved in the criminal justice system. Usually, the law ends up getting perverted for political reasons and public pressure results in tensions being irresponsibly inflamed. I saw this happen several times in New York City in the 1980s thanks to the machinations of Al Sharpton, which is one of the reasons I will never have an ounce of respect for the man. The only thing that the people pushing the Owens story as proof of some non-existent race war are accomplishing is making themselves look exactly like Al Sharpton did back then. If that’s what they want, then more power to them, but I don’t see what it accomplishes and I don’t see why we should take them seriously.