The Zimmerman Verdict

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The trial of the decade (so far) has ended and George Zimmerman is a free man. What are the important points we should take from this?

First, it’s clear that the system worked. Zimmerman received a fair trial. A jury of his peers found him innocent based on the law and the evidence presented at trial. Obviously, Zimmerman was foolish to ignore police advice and continue following poor Trayvon Martin. But he committed no crime in doing so. His actions provoked the confrontation that ended in Martin’s death, but again, under Florida law he was justified in shooting Martin in self-defense. The jury believed that Zimmerman feared for his life, and that’s enough in Florida to justify taking a life, even if the killer instigated the events that led up to the killing.

This trial was not a repeat of the first Rodney King trial, in which a jury consisting of ten whites, one Hispanic, and one Asian was almost certainly blinded by a conscious or unconscious fear of blacks. Nor was it OJ all over again, with a panel practicing jury nullification in support of the defendant. It did, however, resemble the OJ case in that the prosecution was quite inept. The prosecutors were ineffective in all phases of the trial, possibly because they had a weak case to begin with. The defense on the other hand hardly put a foot wrong, aside from the unfortunate knock-knock joke in its opening statement. The authorities also overcharged the case — there was never any prospect of finding Zimmerman guilty of second-degree murder. (Overcharging, by the way, is a tactic used by prosecutors all over the country as a means to get defendants to plead instead of going to trial. As such, it represents a major perversion of our justice system.)

We all should have the absolute right to defend our homes and families from aggression. But public spaces are a different matter.

We can be thankful that the verdict did not lead to major violence. The small-scale thuggery seen in Oakland and L.A. does not compare to the barbarism displayed in South Central L.A. after the King verdict. President Obama, who seems increasingly irrelevant both at home and abroad, performed a useful service by urging calm. On the other hand, the lack of a video in the Zimmerman case may have had as much to do with the absence of major violence as the measured words of America’s mixed-race chief executive.

Millions of people, both black and white, are deeply dissatisfied with the verdict. Many are urging the Justice Department to bring a civil rights case against Zimmerman. Such a case would be very hard if not impossible to prove. This analyst believes Attorney General Holder will decide not to bring a civil rights case against Zimmerman, for the simple reason that it would probably fall apart in court, embarrassing both the Justice Department and the president. That the Attorney General is an African-American probably makes it easier to resist the temptation to file federal charges against Zimmerman. An administration in which all the key players are white might very well feel compelled to do so.

Holder, like the president, has been a moderating voice in the wake of the verdict. This has been his finest hour — or rather, his first fine hour after four-plus years in office. In a recent speech he questioned the concept of Stand Your Ground laws, maintaining that people have a duty to retreat if they can safely do so — but adding the important qualifier, when outside their home. There needs to be a serious debate nationally about the concept of Stand Your Ground. In Vermont, where I live, the law says I should retreat even if a criminal comes onto my property or enters my home. This, to me, is crazy. The idea that I must flee from my home rather than subdue or kill someone coming onto my property with criminal intent repels me. But then Vermont is a crazy place.

In my view we all should have the absolute right to defend our homes and families from aggression. But public spaces are a different matter. It’s true that Zimmerman’s defense team never invoked Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. Nevertheless, that law hung like a storm cloud over the proceedings. The principle of stand your ground as applied to public spaces has led, in this case, to the death of a young man who was simply returning from a trip to the store. A cop wannabe decides to follow a teenage boy (whom he may or may not have racially profiled) despite police advice to desist, and thereby provokes a fight that leads to his shooting the kid to death. Despite these circumstances, the wannabe is innocent in the eyes of the law. The kid is dead; the wannabe walks. Surely in this case the law is an ass.




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New Grit

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The story of True Grit is as simple as a classic western and iconic as a Greek drama — a tale of revenge and redemption, told with wit, grit, and a dash of cathartic poignancy.

Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) has killed Frank Ross in cold blood. Frank's 14-year-old daughter, Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld), is determined to see Chaney hanged for murder. Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) is a murderer of a different sort: as a U.S. Marshall, he has a license to go after outlaws and bring them back, dead or alive. More often than not, he brings them back dead.

Mattie is looking for a marshal with "grit" to help her find her father's killer. The trigger-happy Cogburn is her choice. But the title of the film could just as easily describe Mattie herself. Smart enough to outnegotiate a horse trader, well-versed in the law, plucky enough to tame and ride a new mustang, and tenaciously persistent, she is a girl with true grit. Cogburn is at first irritated by this young whippersnapper, but as he sees her determination, irritation gives way to grudging admiration. Eventually he grows to love her with the protective ferocity of a mother bear.

As they travel together, Cogburn slowly reveals his past to her. He has two failed marriages behind him, as well as a son who, he admits, "never liked me very much." With her unflinching courage and impressive education, Mattie becomes both the son and the daughter Cogburn did not raise. Gradually she comes to represent his opportunity for redemption as a father.

Comparisons to the 1969 version of True Grit, starring John Wayne, are inevitable. After all, the Duke won his one and only Oscar for this role. Many critics have complained that Jeff Bridges' Rooster Cogburn is a grizzled old coot, barely visible behind his whiskers and eye patch. Nevertheless, Bridges sells it, supplying what I consider the original film’s missing ingredient: the growing emotional connection between the precocious yet vulnerable young girl and the old man who has buried his personal life in a whiskey bottle. The chemistry simply didn't exist between Kim Darby and John Wayne, who openly complained about his costar's lack of experience and depth.

Darby's Mattie was bent on reforming the irascible, hard-drinking, cynical Cogburn, but Steinberg's Mattie simply accepts him for who he is and takes care of him when he needs it. When she removes Rooster's tobacco and rolling paper from his fumbling hands and deftly produces a tight cigarette, she does it without condemnation or flourish; it's apparent that she has rolled cigarettes for her father many times before. The gesture symbolizes a subtle transfer of Mattie's affection and signals the beginning of Cogburn's redemption. By contrast, in Kim Darby's hands the cigarette is an unspoken accusation of his immorality.

The Coen Brothers are probably the most versatile moviemaking team in the business. They defy any attempt to place them in a genre box, unless that box is just labeled "Good." It has been said that paper is cheaper than film, and the Coens have taken that axiom to heart, beginning with a great script that leads inevitably to a great story and a great film. From the quirky Raising Arizona to the starmaking Fargo to the sleazy The Big Lebowski to the sublime O Brother, Where Art Thou? and No Country for Old Men, they’ve known how to make movies the old fashioned way: with great stories, great acting, and great cinematography. True Grit may not be their quirkiest or most original, but it is a true winner.


Editor's Note: Review of "True Grit," directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Skydance, 2010, 110 minutes.



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