Why George Zimmerman should not be 'crucified' for killing Trayvon Martin

Passionate citizens and leaders have no right to declare neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin. Due process in the legal system determines that guilt or innocence. Equating justice with imprisoning Zimmerman or firing officials is premature.

REUTERS/David McNew
People rally before the start of a Million Hoodies March in Los Angeles March 26 to protest the failure of police to arrest a Florida neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman for fatally shooting an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin. Op-ed contributor Kyle Scott warns that passionate leaders and citizens should let due process determine Zimmerman's guilt or innocence, not emotion.

“But they kept shouting, ‘Crucify him, crucify him.’” Pontius Pilate finally relented and gave the crowd what it wanted. Pilate, who could find no reason why Jesus should die, could not resist the crowd’s call.

Listening to Sunday’s sermon I wasn’t thinking of the Passion or the Resurrection, but of Trayvon Martin. He was killed by neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman.

The initial judgment from police was that the shooting was in self-defense only to be contradicted by media reports that the attack was unprovoked. One police investigator disclosed doubts about Mr. Zimmerman's story. And yet, police revealed that Zimmerman was attacked by Martin first, and that Zimmerman then shot him. Now, police video released yesterday appears to contradict Zimmerman's story of injuries sustained.

As of now the general public does not know the entirety of what took place that night. All we know for sure is that a young, unarmed African American man was shot and killed. The nation has been overwhelmed by grief and sympathy for Trayvon and his family. And what has turned grief into anger in some is that Zimmerman was released and not charged that night.

A young man was killed and another man was allowed to walk away. Much of the nation, and those who are closest to the case, want justice for Trayvon’s death. But I fear the cry for justice will turn to a cry for something much worse. And in some ways, it already has.

Before we can ask for justice we must be clear about what justice is.

Those of us who were not there that night have no right to declare Zimmerman guilty of murder. That is what the legal system is for, to declare guilt or innocence. This does not mean that Martin’s family and friends or other concerned citizens should not call for further investigation into the matter. But to equate justice with imprisoning Zimmerman or firing officials is premature. These determinations should not be made until procedures consistent with the due process protections contained in the Bill of Rights, and extended to the states by the 14th Amendment, have run their course.

It is irresponsible for anyone to disregard due process of law and judge guilt or innocence from what they see on TV. Also, those in positions of authority, and those who are responsible for upholding and adhering to due process of law, should resist the temptation to further inflame passions.

At a time like this, leaders and politicians should be the calm heads of reason and demand that justice be served in the only way it can be served, by a strict adherence to the rule of law and the procedures mandated by the Constitution.

When passions dictate our actions, we can mistake vengeance for justice. If one of my children were shot I would not be willing to wait for a trial nor care a wit about the rule of law. I would want to see the perpetrator suffer. But that is also why I shouldn’t be allowed to decide the shooter’s fate.

Government and the American legal system are set up for this due process, because people cannot act as impartial judges in their own cases. When people are left to be judge and executioner, their emotions will likely guide their reason, and society’s bonds will break.

If the initial media accounts of that tragic night in Sanford are correct, Zimmerman did just this – let emotion guide reason – when he pursued and possibly when he shot Trayvon. But we cannot know the truth of that night, nor can we consider ourselves morally superior to Zimmerman, if we don’t aspire to a higher standard of justice.

I believe Zimmerman should be arrested, and if indicted, tried in a court of law. But he should not be found guilty or innocent by public opinion. Cries for street justice should go unheeded.

Our legal system is not perfect. It has made wrong decisions and will do so again. But it is a system that limits the number of wrong decisions and the effect a wrong decision has. To do this, the government must adhere to a strict set of standards in trying to prove guilt.

The mark of a just government, and of a people truly committed to the idea of liberty and equality, is the degree to which they abide by those legal standards, chief among them due process. This must be true when we sympathize with the accused just as much as when find the accused repugnant.

Kyle Scott teaches American politics and constitutional law at Duke University. His commentary has appeared in Forbes, Reuters.com, The Christian Science Monitor, Foxnews.com, and dozens of regional outlets including the Philadelphia Inquirer and Baltimore Sun.

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