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Words from Winterbilt

Judicial Soup

Shannon Bohrer

(10/2013) In recent years, we as a nation seem to be obsessed with criminal trials, especially homicide trials—Casey Anthony and the Jodie Arias, just to name a couple. While trials have always been news in this country, I believe the trial of George Zimmerman was different. The entire trial was broadcasted every day and seemed to be on every news channel. Panels of experts reviewed each day, telling us who scored points, who messed up, and most importantly, whether the day was won by the prosecution or the defense. After the verdict, everything started all over again— and it still continues. Did the verdict divide our nation or just expose our differences?

A foretelling of coming events came to me while watching the evening news about the trial. A panel of experts each gave their opinion about what happened on a particular day. Of the experts on the panel one was sure the prosecution had a good day and another said the defense is making its case. It was very apparent that these two experts had widely differing perspectives. The differences were obvious, and you could even feel an emotional intensity. How did two attorneys watching the same event come away with such opposite perspectives?

A general summation of perspectives before and after the verdict might be that one side believes that since Zimmerman followed Martin, that action initiated and caused the fight that would have justified him being found guilty of murder. The other side believes that Martin was having a beat down on Zimmerman and the receiver of the beat down had the right to shoot. A trial is televised and witnessed by millions, so how do we come to such different conclusions? Of course, another way to look at it is, why would you assume that we would have the same perspective?

We have different political perspectives and on many topics we are greatly divided, so maybe it should not be a surprise that we have different opinions about a trial. There are theories and some sciences as to why two people witnessing the same event can come to opposing views of what they saw. To begin with, the differences we start with before an event occurs, is related to what we each see and hear. These differences are well known in the law enforcement community, which is why the credibility of some witnesses is sometimes questioned. Think of a large screen around you that filters what you see and hear. Psychologists refer to this screen as a schema. Our schema is our beliefs, what we know, and what we believe, and if information does not fit with our beliefs, our schema often filters it. Emotions can add weight to our beliefs and the strength of those emotions can be significant. Many times we really do hear and see what we want to. Two people can witness the same event, and their description of the event would seem to describe two separate events.

"When two people meet, there are really six people present. There is each man as he sees himself, each man as the other person see him and each man as he really is." William James, psychologist

If you are black and your ancestors endured 300 years of slavery, you may have a different perspective. If you knew that between 1882 and 1962, there were 3446 black people lynched, you’re perspective may be influenced. In 1946, a man was taken of a bus in South Carolina and beat so bad that he was blinded for life. The man was U.S. Army Sergeant Isaac Woodard Jr. who had been given honorable discharge hours earlier and was still in uniform, wearing his combat metals. Sgt. Woodard was black. His assailants were town policemen including the police chief, all white. All were later charged and all were found not guilty. A year later; 1947, the federal government tried to make lynching a federal crime; it was also the year I was born. In 1948 President Harry Truman, by executive order, integrated the military services. Prejudicial behaviors did not end with civil rights legislation in the 1960’s; the legislation was enacted because of it. I could go on and on, but the point is that some people may have reasons to have different filters and/or perspectives and even a distrust of the system.

Another filter that many people have is age and appearances. Trayvon Martin was a 17 year old child that was unarmed. He did not look like a bad person. There are many people that see children in just that light, as children and not capable of committing a crime. Our society in general has this filter and it is often perpetuated through television. "Pretty" people are good, but what does that infer for the non-pretty people? The emotional attachment to this filter can be strong and is often viewed within the contexts of children being the victims of crime and or neglect.

An example of this filter/bias occurred in October of 2002, with the Washington beltway snipers. When the snipers were caught; there was one adult; John Mohammad and one juvenile; Lee Malvo. The investigation showed that it was the juvenile that killed most of the victims, not the adult. And yet the press coverage at that time seemed to infer that the adult took the juvenile down the dark road. The juvenile was often referred to with sympathy, almost in terms that would make him a victim. Lee Malvo wrote while in jail "I have been accused on my mission. Allah knows I'm suffer now." We sentenced the adult to death, but the juvenile was given life. Many – still see the juvenile as a victim.

Recently Rolling Stone magazine had Dzhokhar Tsarnaev; the Boston bomber, on its cover and there was much outrage. A lot of the complaining centered on the idea that Tsarnaev looked "glamorous". Our villains are not supposed to look glamorous; they are supposed to look hideous. When a police officer sent arrest photos of Tsarnaev to the news media the officer was deemed a good and honorable person, after all this made Tsarnaev look hideous. Or did it? When you first saw the battered and bloody victims of the Boston Bombing, did they look hideous, or did they look like victims? Context matters, in reality and in our heads. Our society wants the bad guys to look – bad. They don’t want them to look young and glamorous and they certainly don’t want them to look like children. The problem with this thought process is the reality is often different from our beliefs.

"Trust is not a matter of technique, but of character; we are trusted because of our way of being, not because of our polished exteriors or our expertly crafted communications" Marsha Sinetar, author

My perspective is from my past, from my career which was in Law Enforcement. My schema and my views can sometimes differ from others and I can suffer from preconceptions and misconceptions just like anyone else. When gathering information for this paper I started with some factual data about homicide, including victims and offenders.

In 2011, the last full year of data for homicides in the U.S., there were 12,664 murders. There were 1,187 victims under the age of 18 and there were 664 offenders (the ones doing the murders) under 18. Also 57 of the offenders under 18 – were female. Juveniles are both victims and offenders. Conversely, 63 offenders were over the age of 75. Another number, 728 of the homicides were committed with personal weapons (personal weapons refer to hands, fists and feet). These numbers may surprise some people, but they are the facts. If we took the "glamorous" photo of Tsarnaev and put it with the 664 offenders and the 1,187 victims, all under 18, you may find a lot of similarities and resemblances. So when someone says s/he does not "look" like a criminal, what do they mean? Of the 1,187 homicide victims under the age of eighteen, 559 were black.

If you remember, after the shooting and before Mr. Zimmerman was charged with a crime, the news media covered the story and many celebrities, news people and "experts" weighted in with their opinions and no one was charged. This was a very emotional event for many people, especially the families of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. Even though it was reported to be a self-defense case, the majority wanted Mr. Zimmerman changed with murder. There was a lot of pressure on the town, the police and the States Attorney’s office. When the local authorities did not press charges the governor then appointed a special prosecutor and Mr. Zimmerman was arrested. The words: that "a 17 year old boy who was unarmed and was carrying candy and a soda, was murdered", was been repeated hundreds of times, before, during and since.

My opinion is that the verdict is correct. That does not mean that I think the shooting should not have happened. The facts tell us that the shooting could have been avoided many times. However I believe the verdict is correct because of the evidence. Lady Justice is blind and she is holding a set of scales. Justice is supposed to weight evidence - facts, not public opinion, not a talking head’s commentary and not emotions.

If one lives in a community that has experienced a rash of illegal home entries a neighborhood watch program may seem like a good idea. When Zimmerman got out of his vehicle to follow someone, he was not committing a crime. According to the evidence presented, Mr. Zimmerman was walking back to his vehicle when he encountered Trayvon Martin. Trayvon Martin then assaulted Mr. Zimmerman, which is a crime. The physical evidence of the assault includes the injuries to Mr. Zimmerman face and head and the injuries to Trayvon Martin’s hands.

Conversely, walking home and being followed is not a crime. Circling back when you believe someone is following you is not a crime. Questioning someone that you believe is following you is not a crime. A crime occurred when Trayvon Martin assaulted Mr. Zimmerman. Being followed by someone is not justification to assault that person. Also, assaulting someone with your fist does not in and of itself give the victim of the assault a legal justification to use deadly force. In this case, when the assault continued to the ground and the victims head was contacting the concrete and this continued for at least 40 seconds, the use of force that may cause death could be justified. That the use of force can be justified is difficult for many people to accept. When someone is taking a beat down with their head striking concrete, they are not thinking of the age, race or sex of the assaulter, they are thinking of survival. A head striking concrete does not require a lot of force to inflict grave bodily injury and/or death.

"Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclination, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence" John Adams (1735-1826)

There are many people that believe this case is about race and other that say it’s about the law. Along these issues there has been a lot said about Trayvon being profiled, both criminal and race, and a common response is that you cannot judge a book by its cover. It is true that a cover does not tell us much, but actions do. It is said; "Life is 10% of what happens to us and 90% how we respond". I am sure that when Trayvon assaulted Zimmerman, he never considered that he could die. It is very sad that this occurred – but it did. What we do about the issues that have been brought to the surface – will and can say a lot about our society.

There are other victims, starting with both families. Society often sees events like this as a win or loss. When George Zimmerman was being assaulted I would make an argument that he never thought about the consequences of his actions, his only thought was to do something to make it stop. My thoughts on this matter come from training police about the use of deadly force and interviewing officers that have used deadly force. When a police officer uses deadly force, often the choices they have is bad or worse and sometime worse is the better choice. Many people have vilified Mr. Zimmerman for his actions, but if in the same situation, they might make the same choice.

Other victims include Ben Kruidbos, the States Attorney’s IT person and Bill Lee, the former Stanford police chief, both of which were fired. The Jury is also a victim. The jury has been vilified because they followed the law. Sgt. Chris Serino is another victim; he was the detective that was transferred. Sgt. Serino was the initial investigator and when he testified some of his answers favored the defense. Several experts; including lawyers, argued that the police are suppose to be working for the prosecution. Having 42 years in law enforcement I need to make this clear. When a police officer testifies they take an oath which includes "THE WHOLE TRUTH AND NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH". Would these lawyers want the police to fudge the truth to match their position? Testimony is not a game; it is for the purpose conveying the truth, no matter which side it falls on. Does the competition between prosecutors and defense attorneys – cloud the purpose of the court?

The last victim is our society. The problems that have long existed and that have recently had light shed upon them cannot be resolved if we have entrenchments as strategies. If a person sees this event as a racial event, it is a racial event to them. If another person does not see race as part of the event, it is a non-racial event to them. As one well known sports person commented, this event is often being driven by biased people on both sides. Are there individuals on both sides of this issue for their own purpose? Is part of the conversation driven by ideology or politics? Is part of the conversation about guns and gun laws? How our leaders address the problems will be related to the resolutions of same. If, as in the past we address symptoms of the problems, the problems may remain.

And lastly, I stated that in 2011 it was reported that there were 12,664 murders in the U.S. In 1991 the number of murders was 24,703. While the murder rate has been cut in half, every murder involves multiple victims, starting with the deceased. To the families of anyone murdered, justified or not, the only number that matters is theirs.

"The life of the law has not been logic; it has been reason."
                   Oliver Wendell Holmes

Read other articles by Shannon Bohrer