Thoughts on the Justice System
There is an understandable and ongoing confusion about the role of the criminal justice system. Despite the ubiquity of blindfolded ladies holding scales, not to mention a lot of flowery words both written in marble on buildings and/or flowing from the mouths of participants, the purpose of the courts is not to produce “justice” in the absolute sense of the term.
In point of fact, the courts are supposed to produce an outcome that is commensurate with the laws as written. As such, if one finds an outcome to be “unjust” is it quite likely that the source of the injustice is not the criminal justice system, per se, but is, rather, the fault of legislators. Indeed, it is often the fault of the demands of the public (which are frequently contradictory*). Regardless, the application of the law in a certain circumstance often produces a legally correct (or, at least, a legally consistent and logical) outcome even if the outcome may not be considered “just” in an abstract sense. And, of course, the question of what is just, both in general and in the specific, is a normative one that is open to disagreement. Such disagreements, as is often the case with normative disputes, can be quite passionate.
It is also worth noting that the the question “what is justice?” is as old as humanity. For example, it is the core question of Plato’s Republic written circa 360 BC. (Spoiler alert: the tome produces no definitive answer—at least not one that ends debate on the subject). That we continue to debate the issue should not be a surprise.
I am not arguing that all court decisions are just. Sometimes they are the result of bad prosecutions or defenses (that can cut either direction, i.e., in terms of the guilty going free and the innocent being jailed). There is a fellow looking for the real killers on the golf courses of America who falls into this camp, without a doubt, as do a large number of persons who have been freed based on DNA evidence in recent years.
The problem with the Zimmerman verdict, without looking at the laws themselves, is that the narrative of that night would appear to include the following elements: a kid minding his own business, an over-zealous and self-appointed neighborhood watchman, a fight, and a dead kid. A key element of that narrative is that it is highly probable that had the over-zealous watchman left the kid alone said kid would be alive today. Justice, in the abstract, would like to see punishment for the death of the kid. The law, however, was on the side of the watchman. This does not, of course, make him innocent. It means that there was no evidence to convict under the laws of the state of Florida.
I am not, by the way, defending the state of Florida. I am pointing out, contra a lot of what I read last night from those upset by the verdict, that the job of the courts here was not dispensing justice as much as it was the proper application of the law. This is always true in court cases, but we the public frequently forget that fact. We also forget (or do not understand) where to aim our ire if, in fact, we think that the laws are unjust. The jury is not responsible for the laws, nor is the judge or the attorneys at trial.
*The fact that the public demands to be protected from people with guns while at the same time also demands that guns be both readily available and easy to carry around does create some logical tension, to say the least.