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In My Words: Don’t let a sensational trial convict our whole justice system

The acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin  sparked cries of a broken system from many Americans, but Assistant Professor Kenneth Fernandez warns about the risks of possible court reforms.

The following column has appeared recently in the Annapolis (Md.) Capital, the Roanoke Times, the Macon (Ga.) Telegraph, the Gaston Gazette and (Burlington, N.C.) Times-News via the Elon University Writers Syndicate. Viewpoints shared by this syndicate are those of the author and not of Elon University.

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Assistant Professor Kenneth Fernandez

Don’t let a sensational trial convict our whole justice system
By Kenneth Fernandez - kfernandez@elon.edu

It’s nearly impossible to find someone who doesn’t have a strong opinion on the guilt or innocence of George Zimmerman, the white Florida neighborhood watch volunteer just acquitted in the 2012 death of a Skittles-packing black teenager.

Reaction was immediate from those who believed the jury got it wrong. You had NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous describing his “outraged and heartbroken” emotions, adding that “we are called to act.” The Rev. Al Sharpton, no stranger to controversial stories involving race, labeled the verdict a “slap in the face to the American people.”

Similar passions divided the nation with Casey Anthony, O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson, and like those cases, we now hear demands to fix a court system that let Trayvon Martin’s death go unpunished. Yet we should be careful before rushing to change our criminal justice process or we may regret what these changes produce.

There is certainly distrust in the way things operate. Nearly three quarters of Americans in some surveys believe the court system is "not harsh enough" and barely one in 10 say they have a "great deal of confidence" in the criminal justice system. Only Congress and HMOs score lower marks, so it’s understandable that some people want change.

The most drastic step would be to create a system based on the assumption of guilt until proven innocent. "Innocent until proven guilty" cannot be found anywhere in our Constitution. Legal scholars suggest that we have merely interpreted the Fifth Amendment's text, "no person shall be ... deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law," as giving prosecutors the burden of proving a defendant's guilt.

Or we can move to a system where we scrap the notion of “reasonable doubt” and rely instead on what we do in civil trials with a “preponderance of evidence.”

Or maybe we find guilt based on a simple majority of jurors. Both Oregon and Louisiana allow for non-unanimous verdicts in felony trials. This might be the easiest reform to bring about since the public would likely support it and the U.S. Supreme Court, in the 1972 case Apodaca v. Oregon, has already upheld its constitutionality.

In one sense, today’s criminal justice system is designed to let the guilty go free. Our process is based on the legal and moral reasoning that a person is innocent until the government provides substantial evidence to the contrary, even for those who we are sure, at the bottom of our stomach, did the crime.

In fact, our court system may face a different problem than letting criminals go free. Statistics on felony trials show that juries end up convicting about 75 percent of all defendants who go to trial. This doesn't include the 80 to 90 percent of defendants who strike plea deals. 

With one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, our system is far from perfect, but the evidence does not seem to suggest a system that is incapable of convicting defendants.

For every George Zimmerman, Casey Anthony or O.J. Simpson there is a Randall Dale Adams, a Rubin "Hurricane" Carter and a Clarence Brandley, all imprisoned with little or questionable evidence and whose stories have been featured in popular Hollywood films. 

Before we let sensational, high-profile court cases drive our judgment on our criminal justice system we should consider the words of Robert Jackson, the American in charge of prosecuting Nazi war criminals in the Nuremberg trial: 

"The ultimate principle is that you must put no man on trial under the forum of judicial proceedings if you are not willing to see him freed if not proved guilty,” Jackson once said. “The world yields no respect to courts that are merely organized to convict."

Kenneth Fernandez is an assistant professor of political science at Elon University and director of the Elon University Poll.

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Elon University faculty with an interest in sharing their expertise with wider audiences are encouraged to contact Eric Townsend (etownsend4@elon.edu) in the Office of University Communications should they like assistance with prospective newspaper op/ed submissions.

Eric Townsend,
Staff
7/16/2013 11:55 AM