Opinion from Funt: Fog in the Sunshine State
George Zimmerman’s trial is far from over, but for a national audience that hasn’t been so engrossed and emotionally divided about a murder trial since O.J. Simpson’s 1995 courtroom debacle, much is already known.
First, we’ll never know for sure what happened the night Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin. Without a solid eyewitness, or a victim who lived to tell his side of the story, no amount of testimony about muffled and unidentifiable screams or vague recollections of shadowy figures tussling in the night will be conclusive. In the end, the nation will view this as a racial matter, as it has ever since the shooting in February of 2012, and few will alter their views based upon evidence presented in the Sanford courtroom.
There is little chance Zimmerman will be convicted of second-degree murder, although a manslaughter conviction remains a possibility.
Most glaring in this case is the need for revision of Stand Your Ground laws, like the one in Florida. A jury might conclude that Zimmerman believed he faced “great bodily harm,” but the law should not make it so simple for a person in that position to shoot an unarmed foe. What are jurors to think of someone who disobeys instructions from a police dispatcher and walks into harm’s way, only to find himself in a situation where the law suggests he may shoot to kill?
Also clear after just one week of this exercise is that lawyers, even in high profile cases, are at times stunningly inept. Defense attorney Don West’s attempt at humor in his opening statement to the jury was a gaffe so profound that Zimmerman could probably cite it on appeal if ever convicted.
Then there was the mishandling by both sides of key prosecution witness Rachel Jeantel. Prosecutors erred by not carefully prepping such a young and vulnerable participant, who was only 17 at the time of the shooting. Defense lawyers, on the other hand, were allowed to badger the young woman in ways that seemed to far exceed their rights in cross examination.
Although the defense has yet to put on its case, it has scored many points based on the weak presentation of the prosecution’s witnesses.
As viewers, we are reminded, too, of the serious racial divides in our nation. A neighborhood volunteer finds a black teenager with a hoodie “suspicious,” while the boy looks upon the watchman as a “creepy-ass cracker.”
Also on trial, as it always is in sensational cases, is television. Although I’ve found the coverage riveting and at times even educational, I continue to believe that justice is not served by the glare of TV. The public’s right to know can never be deemed more important than a defendant’s right to a fair trial, and there is little about the intensity of TV that promotes fairness. No witness, no lawyer, no judge, is likely to be unaffected by the pressure of performing on national television.
Perhaps attorney West would have thought differently about his knock-knock joke if he weren’t presenting it for the cameras. He’s certainly aware, for example, that one of the analysts covering the trial is Marcia Clark, the lawyer who parlayed her performance in the O.J. Simpson trial into high paying media jobs.
As we enter summer’s dog days, this long anticipated but relatively minor trial is taking place at a time of overwhelmingly important news — in the Supreme Court, on Capitol Hill, and around the globe. Yet, we’ll remain fixated on the Florida courtroom, where one man’s fate will be decided, while little is learned, and not much will change.
Peter Funt’s new book, “Cautiously Optimistic,” is available at Amazon.com and CandidCamera.com.
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