Monday, July 01, 2013

Is the Zimmerman Case a Recipe for a Miscarriage of Justice

In one sense, there can be no question but that the Zimmerman prosecution is a recipe for at least a perception of a miscarriage of justice, because no matter what the verdict there will be an enormous population of people who will be convinced that the outcome was unjust. Chicago Tribune blogger Eric Zorn suggests that the "Zimmerman trial has all the ingredients for a miscarriage of justice", but in saying that he's concerned only with wrongful conviction - which, in fairness, is a far worse outcome from a standpoint of the integrity of our legal system than a wrongful acquittal.
In following the George Zimmerman trial somewhat closely online last week, I noted a familiar pattern:
A "heater" case that draws intense media interest.

Sympathetic victim.

Unsympathetic defendant.

Evidence of innocence explained away with far-fetched theories or else ignored.

Evidence of guilt magnified and bolstered with irrelevant detail and innuendo.
These are among the key ingredients for all the wrongful convictions I've written about in the last 20 years.
I think that Zorn's statements about the defendant and victim are misleading - I cannot recall a murder case in which I've heard more impassioned defenses of a killer, and I would be hard pressed to find one with greater public vilification of the victim. Even Zorn gets into the mix:
Martin wasn't the slight middle-school student seen in first photos of him made public, but a tall, athletic 17-year-old who'd had plenty of time to walk safely home once he knew he was being followed. Zimmerman was of mixed ethnicity, and he'd lost sight of Martin that night while attempting to keep an eye on him for police.
Zorn later expresses to a critic of that statement,
[H]ere http://blogs.chicagotribune.com/news_columnists_ezorn/2012/03/trayvon-martin-shooting-death-initial-police-reports.html I accurately report the documents showing him to be 6 feet' 170 lbs.
Actually, here Zorn accurately reports him to be "5-feet-11, 158 pounds, according to his autopsy". The incident report estimates Martin to be 6', 160 pounds, which is a pretty good estimate under the circumstances but still a good 10 pounds lighter than Zorn's "accurate" recitation. A survey of Zorn's comments on the case suggest that he is trying to be reasonably objective but that his sympathies lie with Zimmerman - and that he's inclined to spin up some pretty convoluted theories to try to turn Martin into an aggressor.1

If Zorn has followed homicide cases, then he knows that if you're claiming to be innocent of homicide you have two basic defenses, the stronger of which is "That other guy did it," and the weaker, "Some other guy did it". When you're in a position where you can't deny committing the homicide, the defense presented is typically, "The victim deserved to die." That is why the Zimmerman team has made a long-term, concerted effort to attack Martin, to raise allegations they know or should know to be false, and bringing media attention or seeking to use at trial evidence that they know is irrelevant to the case but feeds into the anti-Martin narrative his supporters are so quick to grasp - and let's not forget, leaks and sensationalistic claims from both sides can be reasonably be assumed to be intended to influence the jury pool.

I think that Zorn's comments are better viewed as problems with the adversarial system of justice. The prosecutor in a homicide case will typically try to make the defendant look like a bad person and the victim look like an innocent, because that makes conviction more likely. The defense in a "he deserved to die" case will do the opposite because if the jury buys the notion that the defendant is basically a good person and the defendant deserved what was coming to him, the odds of acquittal go up. When you observe that the prosecutor is depicting the defendant as a bad guy who caused harm to a good person, you're doing little more than describing what happens in criminal cases hundreds of times each day, every day of the week.

The same holds true with regard to how the prosecutor explains away theories of innocence, or emphasizes evidence suggesting guilt. That's the prosecutor's job. It's the job of the defense to emphasize theories of innocence and evidence suggesting innocence. This is why we call the system "adversarial" - the two sides are working at opposite purposes. Although Zorn doesn't acknowledge this, you can only push your "explaining away" so far - if you overplay your hand you risk losing credibility with the jury. If the theory of guilt is far-fetched, the jury is much more likely to accept a theory of innocence that is plausible.

In terms of media attention, I suspect that the reason Zorn, a reporter, sees more miscarriages of justice in cases that draw media attention is because he's a member of the media. Certainly, there are some notable cases in which the police were in a hurry to close out a high profile case and a wrongful conviction followed, but those cases typically have what to me are the better predictors of when a case is more likely to result in wrongful conviction:
1. A heavy or exclusive reliance on eyewitness testimony; and

2. A statement that is contended by the police to be self-incriminating, or where the defendant actually falsely confesses to a crime.
I recall one case in which a defendant's "confession" turned out to be a remnant of an interrogation on a different case, with the police recording the defendant's statement on a recycled tape and, with no actual intent to do so, creating for lack of a better word a mix-tape in which the new interrogation ended right before the defendant in the prior case, whose voice was similar to the defendant's, admitted committing a crime. False confession cases can be difficult at times to wrap your head around - and the reasons that defendants give for having made what was later proved to be a false confession don't necessarily help. The defendant is often, but not always, of lesser education, possibly with a cognitive impairment.

Eyewitness testimony is dangerous because it is highly persuasive, but often contains errors and inaccuracies. If you ask enough questions, no matter how good the memory of the eyewitness, they'll get something wrong. The confidence of a witness is his or her testimony is not a good measure of its accuracy, but juries nonetheless tend to perceive confident, forceful testimony as being strong evidence.

Another factor in somee high profile wrongul conviction cases, is police, prosecutorial, or witness misconduct - including witholding evidence, destroying evidence, fabricating evidence, and coaching or influencing witnesses to give statements on matters for which the witness is uncertain or even where up to that point the witness has given contrary testimony that, if not changed, would be harmful to the prosecution.

On the whole, save for the intense publicity and public interest, the most unusual aspect of the case is that the defendant has managed to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to cover his legal fees, expert witnesses, investigators, and the like. The publicity has been at worst a double-edged sword, and arguably has given Zimmerman advantages over a defendant who faces similar charges but makes "too much money" to qualify for a court-appointed lawyer, or lives in a jurisdiction where the compensation given to court-appointed lawyers is a bad joke.

I personally believe that the most important prosecution witnesses are going to be the forensic witnesses who describe the fatal gunshot wound and shooting angle, and George Zimmerman himself, through the statement he has made to the police and media about how the shooting occurred. I personally suspect that it is the forensic evidence coupled with those inconsistent statements, not the public reaction, that led to Zimmerman's being charged. To be specific, I suspect that the state's evidence will be that Zimmerman's stories are not only inconsistent, it's impossible to reconcile any of those stories with the angle of the gunshot wound. The question then becomes, will Zimmerman testify with yet another story - and open himself up to an interrogation that will flyspeck all of his prior statements and scrutinize his motivations - or will he instead try to overcome the contradictions through other witnesses and arguments presented by his lawyers.

Regrettably, only two people are in a position to tell us what actually happened that night, one of whom is dead and the other of whom will likely choose not to testify in his own defense.
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1. In the comments, Zorn argues "Trayvon Martin could easily, at a leisurely walk, have covered the distance between the clubhouse, where he was first spotted, and Brandy Green's townhouse in the elapsed time from the beginning of Zimmerman's 911 call, when Zimmerman first spotted him, to the end of Zimmerman's 911 call", and accuses those who question his interpretation of the time line as engaging in speculation. He argues, "To make your story work, Martin has to simply linger there wondering if he's being followed (since I'm sure you don't want to accept the narrative in which doubles back to challenge Zimmerman)" - implying pretty strongly that, despite possession no evidence beyond speculation over the time line, he believes that last narrative. I would like to hear Zorn's explanation of how Martin would have known, after leaving the roadway and walking down the sidewalk between the houses, that Zimmerman would park, leave his vehicle and continue to either follow or appear to follow him into the area where the shooting occurred.

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