Time and again, various self-appointed pundits make categorical pronouncements about what “the law” does or doesn’t mean. This has been especially true in the George Zimmerman trial, where in spite of the fact that the trial is over, there has been no shortage of opinions, some with absolute certainty that “according to the law” George Zimmerman “should have been” found guilty.
MSNBC has been the most egregious offender, putting forth an almost endless parade of Trayvon Martin worshipers, some of whom have even made comments exhorting black Americans to outright attacks on white people. Not surprisingly, in the wake of all this rabble-rousing, around the country there have been more than a few incidents of black-on-white violence.
Of course, there are equally insistent “experts” who declare with similar certainty that Zimmerman was indeed not guilty (often using the same legal references). Talk show host Sean Hannity has been especially annoying, repeating over and over again the text of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground Law” – in spite of the fact that Zimmerman never attempted to claim immunity under that statute.
And both sides invariably preface their opinions with the phrase, “according to the law…” or (my personal favorite) “the law clearly says…” as if there were a single, precise, and universally accepted definition for every legal principle.
But reality is quite different. My grandfather was a famous criminal court judge in the city of Chicago, and he had a number of memorable quotes about the legal process. For example, he once asked rhetorically, “What does the law say?” He then answered his own question, “It depends completely on who’s reading it.”
He was right. Look at Supreme Court rulings. With few exceptions, they are split decisions, 7-2, 6-3 or (especially with today’s court) 5-4. Which means that with that case, on that day, one group of judges said the law means “X” and the other disagreed, declaring that it means “Y” (or “Z). A year later, with a change in the court’s makeup, the decision on a similar case could be 5-4, but the other way.
More to the point, none of the opinions of these self-appointed “legal experts” on TV have any bearing on a trial (especially one that has already ended). I’ll again quote my grandfather, who once opined that “everyone has their opinion on the law. What they forget is that in a courtroom, there are only 12 opinions that count, and theirs isn’t one of them.”
Absent a “bench trial” or a directed verdict of acquittal by the judge, the jury has the final word. They will decide what “the law” says. And if the educated, experienced members of the highest court in the land can’t agree, imagine how much more difficult it is for a jury of twelve everyday people to come to a unanimous verdict.
Relying on the wording of state statures or case law to predict the outcome of any trial is an exercise in futility. I work with some of the best criminal attorneys in the country, “junk yard dogs” who specialize in self-defense cases. And as one attorney pointed out, “case law varies widely among jurisdictions, and is constantly modifying and reinterpreting the rules of law.”
None of us, especially those who carry firearms, can predict where or when we might become involved in a situation requiring us to use deadly force in self-defense, or how the incident will unfold. We also don’t know who will be on our jury, or who will prosecute the case. And we certainly don’t know what kind of judge we will get. It could be a true constitutionally based individual who sees their role as a neutral “umpire” or an anti-gun zealot who “legislates from the bench.”
However, we can all benefit from the experiences of others, both good and bad. Thus it is always instructive to watch, listen and learn, especially from highly publicized trials like that of George Zimmerman. Because if we pick up even a single bit of wisdom that helps us avoid making a mistake in our own lives, the time spent will be well worth it.