Monday, July 15, 2013

Of Verdicts and Public Opinion

Here is what's hard.

Two cases, famous in their respective countries.

Case 1, in Taiwan, a foreign man is accused of driving drunk after a night of karaoke, hitting and killing someone (a local). Nobody really knows what happened, but everyone in the expat community agrees his trial was a sham. He's found guilty - chances are just as good that the police and the owners of the KTV, along with the judge, agreed it would just be better if the foreigner took the blame for the Taiwanese man's death as they are that he actually did it. Taiwanese public opinion very much supports his "guilt". The media treat him as guilty even before the trial. Not only is he a foreigner, but  he's dark skinned (doesn't matter that he's British).

Most foreigners believe that the verdict was wrong, and that it was probably also reached in part as a result of the pressure of public opinion on the judge, pushing him to convict. The argument is that a fair judge wouldn't be swayed that way (nor would a fair judge collude with police and the KTV owners to agree to blame the foreigner).

Case 2, in the USA, a young black man is killed for what appears to be no reason whatsoever. The killer is found not guilty (which, by Florida law, is as far as I know technically true, but that's a point against Florida law, nit a point in favor of the killer. Public opinion is almost entirely one of great fury at the crime and verdict. He was found guilty by the public long before he was tried. Nobody believes justice is served. Many seem willing to ignore the findings of the jury in favor of that public opinion, which says he should fry (or be locked away if you're not into the death penalty).

Case 1is that of Zain Dean. Case 2 is that of George Zimmerman.

In Case 1, I'm inclined to agree that public opinion among Taiwanese should not have played a role in Zain Dean's conviction. I don't know what happened, but no matter what it was, the trial itself was almost certainly a joke. I believe that the judge should have followed due process and ignored the Taiwanese media and public clamoring for Dean's head. (From what I've heard, even from students who just assumed he was guilty until I pointed out that it wasn't nearly so assured that he was, judges in Taiwan are influenced by public opinion to convict or aquit far more than they should be).

In case 2, however, I'm inclined to agree with the public opinion. Justice was not served. George Zimmerman is a murderer and America is still a very racist society. I can say that I think due process should be followed, even as Obama speaks out and says that in a land of laws, we must respect the findings of a jury if we want that due process. But...deep down, I think it was just the wrong verdict.

The commonality here is that I do feel the verdicts reached were both the wrong ones, but for very different reasons. And in one, I'm inclined to dismiss public opinion because I happen to not agree with it (or at least, I just don't know anything beyond the fact that the trial was a joke). In the other, I can't bring myself to dismiss public opinion that quickly...because I agree with it.

And it both, race and racism played a huge part in public opinion before and after the verdicts, and probably in the trials themselves.

I'm not sure what conclusions to draw from this, but I can't help but see the parallels here and contemplate my own ideas about when the public is right, and when they're not...and when to respect the verdict of a jury or judge, and when not to.

And once again, I'm reminded of my own privilege. As a white person, I may face prejudice, but I am not nearly as likely to be assumed guilty in Taiwan as Zain Dean (of South Asian descent, I believe) was - damning evidence of racism deeply rooted in Taiwan. In America, I probably wouldn't be seen as "suspicious" enough to shoot without cause, and the system works in my favor. It's amazing how many people are blind to that.


blobOfNeurons said...

"Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity." It's tempting to point to either Zimmerman as a villain but it's far more likely that what happened was just a case of misadventure and misunderstanding.

Zimmerman should have memorized the street names of his neighborhood.
Trayvon should have gotten home earlier.
Zimmerman shouldn't have been so creepy.
Zimmerman shouldn't have gotten out of his car.
Trayvon shouldn't have confronted Zimmerman.
Trayvon shouldn't have punched Zimmerman.
Zimmerman really ought have taken more of those MMA classes.

Ultimately, I think the verdict was the right one. All the evidence points to Zimmerman firing his weapon because he was getting the shit beaten out of him. But that situation could have been avoided. It's too bad it wasn't.

Jenna Cody said...

And I don't think the verdict was the right one. I really, truly don't. He shouldn't have followed Trayvon, he shouldn't have gotten out of his car, there should never have been a confrontation.

And I do feel that the law that acquitted him is poorly written, poorly applied and poorly interpreted. Marissa Alexander should have gone free, not George Zimmerman, if the morally correct application of that law had been followed.

The verdict is wrong, the law is wrong, and what Zimmerman did was wrong.

And that's way more than "misadventure and misunderstanding". It's stone cold racism and a poorly-designed and poorly-conceived law.

(I'm in favor of the idea of a 'stand your ground' law that applies to, say, someone chasing a burglar out of their house or attacking in pure self-defense when not initiating a confrontation. Not what's currently on the books).