Just when I thought the George Zimmerman “trial” couldn’t sink any lower, the prosecutorial limbo dancers of the State of Florida magnificently lowered their own bar in the final moments of their cable-news celebrity. In real justice systems, the state decides what crime has been committed and charges somebody with it. In the Zimmerman trial, the state’s “theory of the case” is that it has no theory of the case: might be murder, might be manslaughter, might be aggravated assault, might be a zillion other things, but it’s something. If you’re a juror, feel free to convict George Zimmerman of whatever floats your boat.
Nailing a guy on something, anything, is a time-honored American tradition: If you can’t get Al Capone on the Valentine’s Day massacre, get him on his taxes. Americans seem to have a sneaky admiration for this sort of thing, notwithstanding that, as we now know, the government is happy to get lots of other people on their taxes, too. Ever since the president of the United States (a man so cautious and deferential to legal niceties that he can’t tell you whether the Egyptian army removing the elected head of state counts as a military coup until his advisers have finished looking into the matter) breezily declared that if he had a son he’d look like Trayvon, ever since the U.S. Department of so-called Justice dispatched something called its “Community Relations Services” to Florida to help organize anti-Zimmerman rallies at taxpayer expense, ever since the politically savvy governor appointed a “special prosecutor” and the deplorably unsavvy Sanford Police Chief was eased out, the full panoply of state power has been deployed to nail Zimmerman on anything.
How difficult can that be in a country in which an Hispanic Obama voter can be instantly transformed into the poster boy for white racism? Who ya gonna believe — Al Sharpton or your lying eyes? As closing arguments began on Thursday, the prosecutors asked the judge to drop the aggravated-assault charge and instruct the jury on felony murder committed in the course of child abuse. Felony murder is a murder that occurs during a felony, and, according to the prosecution’s theory du jour, the felony George Zimmerman was engaged in that night was “child abuse,” on the grounds that Trayvon Martin, when he began beating up Zimmerman, was 17 years old. This will come as news to most casual observers of the case, who’ve only seen young Trayvon in that beatific photo of him as a twelve-year-old.
In that one pitiful closing moment, the case achieved its sublime reductio ad absurdum: After a year’s labors, after spending a million bucks, after calling a legion of risible witnesses, even after the lead prosecutor dragged in a department-store mannequin and personally straddled it on the floor of the court, the state is back to where it all began — the ancient snapshot of a smiling middle-schooler that so beguiled American news editors, Trayvon Martin apparently being the only teenager in America to have gone entirely unphotographed in the second decade of the 21st century. And, if Trayvon is a child, his malefactor is by logical extension a child abuser.
Needless to say, even in a nutso jurisdiction like Florida, the crime of “child abuse” was never intended to cover a wizened old granny kicking the ankle of the punk who’s mugging her a week before his 18th birthday. But, if Aggravated Pedophilia is what it takes to fry that puffy white cracker’s butt, so be it. If, for the purposes of American show trials, an Hispanic who voted for a black president can be instantly transformed into a white racist, there’s no reason why he can’t be a child abuser, too. The defense was notified of this novel development, on which the prosecution (judging by the volume of precedents assembled) had been working for weeks or more likely months, at 7:30 that morning. If you know your Magna Carta, you’ll be aware that “no official shall place a man on trial . . . without producing credible witnesses to the truth of it.” But the rights enjoyed by free men in the England of King John in 1215 are harder to come by in the State of Florida eight centuries later. So the prosecutors decided, the day before the case went to the jury, that Zimmerman was engaged in an act of child abuse that had somehow got a bit out of hand: No “credible witnesses” to this charge had been presented in the preceding weeks, but hey, what the hell? Opposing counsel taking the reasonable position that they’d shown up to defend Mr. Zimmerman of murder and had had no idea until that morning that he was also on trial for child abuse, check bouncing, jaywalking, an expired fishing license, or whatever other accusation took the fancy of the State of Florida, asked for time to research the relevant case law. Judge Debra Nelson gave them until 1 p.m. At that point, it was 10:30 a.m. By the time the genius jurist had returned to the bench, she had reconsidered, and decided that “child abuse” would be a reach too far, even for her disgraceful court.
The defining characteristic of English law is its distribution of power between prosecutor, judge, and jury. This delicate balance has been utterly corrupted in the United States to the point where today at the federal level there is a conviction rate of over 90 percent — which would impress Mubarak and the House of Saud, if not quite, yet, Kim Jong Un. American prosecutors have an unhealthy and disreputable addiction to what I called, at the conclusion of the trial of my old boss Conrad Black six years ago, “countless counts.” In Conrad’s case, he was charged originally with 17 crimes, three of which were dropped by the opening of the trial and another halfway through, leaving 13 for the jury, nine of which they found the defendant not guilty of, bringing it down to four, one of which the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional and the remaining three of which they vacated, only to have two of them reinstated by the lower appeals court. In other words, the prosecution lost 88 percent of the case, but the 12 percent they won was enough to destroy Conrad Black’s life.
Multiple charges tend, through sheer weight of numbers, to favor a result in which the jury convict on some and acquit on others and then tell themselves that they’ve reached a “moderate” “compromise” as befits the reasonable persons they assuredly are. It is, of course, not reasonable. Indeed, the notion of a “compromise” between conviction and acquittal is a dagger at the heart of justice. It’s the repugnant “plea bargain” in reverse, but this time to bargain with the jury: Okay, we threw the book at him and it went nowhere, so why don’t we all agree to settle? In Sanford, the state’s second closing “argument” to the strange, shrunken semi-jury of strikingly unrepresentative peers — facts, shmacts, who really knows? vote with your hearts — brilliantly dispenses with the need for a “case” at all.
We have been warned that in the event of an acquittal there could be riots. My own feeling is that the Allegedly Reverend Al Sharpton, now somewhat emaciated and underbouffed from his Tawana Brawley heyday, is not the Tahrir Square–scale race-baiting huckster he once was. But if Floridians are of a mind to let off a little steam, they might usefully burn down the Sanford courthouse and salt the earth. The justice system revealed by this squalid trial is worth rioting over.