Ferguson is Why We Have Trials

If I had been on the grand jury of the Darren Wilson case, I would have voted to indict. If I had been on the jury of his criminal trial, I would have voted to acquit. That is knowing what I know right now. Of course testimony I’d hear in either of those situations might change my mind.

There’s nothing inconsistent about this. The reasonable doubt standard of guilt is a high bar to meet. It is possible to have a reasonable doubt about the guilt of someone who you nevertheless feel is guilty. For the record, I think we’d all be marginally safer with George Zimmerman off the streets, but I might have acquitted him too. Also, though not a big fan of Stand Your Ground laws, had Trayvon Martin killed Zimmerman I would have let him walk on those grounds. I believe that O.J. Simpson murdered Nicole Brown, but do not believe the jury that let him off was irresponsible. I suspect black distrust of the L.A.P.D. factored into their decision, and punishing unpopular law enforcement agencies by making it harder for them to get convictions is just the kind of feedback loop jury trials should encourage.

To all the disfunction in the U.S. criminal justice system Michael Brown’s shooting and the subsequent unrest in Ferguson has illustrated–racial disparities, militarized policing–add the reminder that criminal trials often seem less a public inquiry into an alleged crime and more a little ritual we go through before sending someone to jail. If you think that Darren Wilson should be given the benefit of the doubt for potentially illegal but probably justified actions, then you should want to see him go on trial, because giving the benefit of the doubt is what trials are supposed to do. In age of mass incarceration and drug war prosecutorial overreach, however, they often seem more like the endgame of a horse trading session that has mostly already played out in some police interrogation room. Though we officially presume innocence, criminal trials feel like something an innocent person should not have to endure.

Indicting Darren Wilson probably wouldn’t have changed much. If you believe the real issue is systematic inequity, whether or not one guy goes to jail is beside the point. And if he did go to trial and got off, the same scene would have played out a year later. The 1992 L.A. riots happened after the police officers who beat Rodney King were indicted, tried, and acquitted. You don’t insist on the fair, open and strictly regulated application of state power in order to prevent this or that riot. It’s a longer game than that. Even in a just society, criminals will escape, officials will overstep, and riots will occur. Justice serves as a bulwark against deeper unrest.

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One Response to Ferguson is Why We Have Trials

  1. W.P. McNeill says:

    Ferguson is also why we should have inquests.

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