Sunday, July 14, 2013

George Zimmerman's verdict

I haven't read the jury's reasoning, and I'm certainly not suggesting juries always get things right. However it does bother me that so many people were sure Zimmerman was guilty even before he received a proper trial, and are now sure the verdict is wrong.

We have a system for a reason, and we have the high standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt" as an attempt to ensure no innocent people go to prison. The price we pay for that is some guilty people will go free. I don't know whether Zimmerman was guilty, but in general I'd rather err on the side of the guilty going free than the innocent going to prison.

At the same time, I want the justice system to work the same way for everyone. A lot of people have been talking about racial bias in this case. I've seen several people link to another Florida story, this time one in which a black woman allegedly fired a warning shot (or shots?) against her abusive husband. She has been sentenced to 20 years in prison. I haven't read about the details, so I don't know, but people are making it sound like the difference between this outcome and the Zimmerman one is race. I also saw someone link to this chart from io9:
Roman [an analyst] also found that Stand Your Ground [SYG] laws tend to track the existing racial disparities in homicide convictions across the U.S. — with one significant exception: Whites who kill blacks in Stand Your Ground states are far more likely to be found justified in their killings. In non-Stand Your Ground states, whites are 250 percent more likely to be found justified in killing a black person than a white person who kills another white person; in Stand Your Ground states, that number jumps to 354 percent.
You can see the breakdown of the killings in the chart below. The figures represent the percentage likelihood that the deaths will be found justifiable compared to white-on-white killings, which was the baseline Roman used for comparison:

So, of course, the chart is showing a significant correlation between race and case outcomes, and of course, as with most correlations between race and X other factors, people assume this proves racism.

But the data we see here doesn't talk about types of homicide, or circumstances or anything. For example, a person killing a lover they found in bed with someone else is very different from a person killing someone in a gang fight which is very different from a person carefully planning to kill his boss which is very different from a person shooting an armed robber and on and on. Meanwhile, race is also correlated with criminal activity, which is also correlated with poverty and education level, and so on.

My point is not that racism doesn't exist. I think racism does exist. I think the above chart is disturbing. But I am not sure if it's disturbing because it suggests that our judicial system is heavily biased based on race, or because it suggests black men are actually more likely to be guilty of murder than white men, or because it suggests some parts of the country are more dangerous than others and thus more in need of Stand Your Ground laws, or what. I expect it's some of everything.

No matter how you look at it, there are clearly problems. No matter how you look at it, race is correlated with different incarceration rates. Whether that's due to the simple prejudice of juries or the complicated institutional problems that predispose certain races to crime, it's still a problem.

I'm not convinced the Zimmerman verdict was the wrong one, but I do think the case the case is a tragedy no matter how you slice it.

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