Fulwider, 7-7-2013

Guest Column: Zimmerman case reveals test of liberty and justice for all

Fulwider, Bryan(Orlando Sentinel, July 7, 2013)

By Bryan Fulwider

Six women in Sanford will soon decide the fate of George Zimmerman, the man charged with the second-degree murder of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old who was killed by a single gunshot to the chest on the night of Feb. 26, 2012.

Experts and non-experts alike are parsing every word and evaluating every piece of evidence at the trial.

Yet the only prediction we can make with certainty is that a large group of onlookers are going be devastated by the verdict, and another large group are going to thank God that justice prevailed.

Of course, we do not yet know which group will emit which response.

In our pledge of allegiance, we recite “liberty and justice for all.” Yet, despite our best intentions, there’s an element of hyperbole in those words. Liberty can’t be guaranteed. Trayvon’s liberty ended the moment the bullet from Zimmerman’s gun entered his heart.

In an altogether different way, George Zimmerman’s liberty also effectively ended at that same moment. Whether he’s acquitted or goes to prison, life will never again afford him the range of options he once enjoyed.

The justice part of the pledge is also troublesome.

The reality is, we can’t guarantee justice. At best, we can provide a process that’s as near to fair as we can make it. Yet the non-stop commentary of the legal experts shows they don’t agree on what constitutes a fair process; and average onlookers are even more divided.

Trayvon Martin’s parents face the chilling reality that their beloved teenage son went to a store to buy Skittles and Arizona Iced Tea–only to take a fatal bullet to the heart before he could get back home. Surely that can’t happen without consequences, they say.

From the perspective of Zimmerman’s parents, their adult son was simply trying to protect his neighborhood and, ultimately, himself. Surely he shouldn’t go to prison for that, they say.

So six women are carefully weighing which testimonies, which arguments and which pieces of evidence present the most compelling indicators of guilt and innocence.

The jury’s assignment is made all the more daunting, because, there are both virtues and flaws present in the human beings whose words and actions they must assess. That’s true of the victim, the accused, the witnesses, the lawyers, everyone.

Because neither the accused nor the victim is without blemish, each legal team seeks to convince the jury that the person the opposing lawyers represent is unworthy – that Zimmerman doesn’t deserve to go free; that Trayvon doesn’t deserve to be considered a victim.

It’s an ugly process.

It makes deeper the pain of people already hurting deeply; it fragments more profoundly a public already polarized significantly.

After the verdict, large numbers will view either the life of Zimmerman or the life Trayvon to have been treated as if it were of no consequence.

In deciding Zimmerman’s fate, the six women must honor the court’s “beyond reasonable doubt” standard and also adhere to a list of other rigorous guidelines issued by the judge. They will make their decision in the context of millions of people across the nation and around the world who won’t hesitate to declare them misguided fools.

It’s no easy task.

Now for a simple request: If you approve of the verdict the jury renders, err on the side of restraint in your celebrating. It’s not a time to gloat. Whatever the outcome, we’ve witnessed a tragic chapter in the life of two families and our community as a whole.

If you disapprove of the verdict, err on the side of restraint in your venting of disapproval. Instead of giving in to rage, seek to positively harness the energy generated by the emotion.

In fact–approve or disapprove–this case dramatically emphasizes the need for greater clarity in our laws and processes if we are to indeed ensure that the promise of liberty and justice for all becomes less a form of hyperbole and more truly a reality.

The Rev. Bryan Fulwider is co-founder of the nonprofit Building Us and chair of the executive committee of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.