The Lessons of George Zimmerman’s ‘Not Guilty’ Verdict

Criminal trials are not very good at deciding whether a defendant is actually innocent — or whether racial profiling is a problem in our country

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The jury’s “not guilty” verdict in the George Zimmerman case sent a strong message: that we expect too much of jury verdicts. In high-profile trials like this one, in which the public is sharply divided over whether the defendant is a hero or a villain, we look to jurors to be modern-day oracles — settling the debate definitively, and leaving us enlightened as a nation. Instead, all we got was the jury’s terse decision that the prosecutors had not proved Zimmerman guilty of murder or manslaughter beyond a reasonable doubt.

Zimmerman’s family greeted the jury’s verdict as a full-on vindication. His brother insisted in a CNN interview that it meant that Zimmerman was “innocent,” not merely “not guilty.” The NAACP, for its part, said the acquittal meant that “justice failed.” That is not a debate that is likely to resolve itself anytime soon. In the end, however, the Zimmerman verdict offers up two important lessons: that criminal trials are not very good at deciding whether a defendant is actually innocent; and that they are equally bad at helping us to resolve the larger issues raised by a case.

(MORE: Preparing for Riots After Zimmerman Verdict Is Racial Fearmongering)

From the moment Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old, in a gated community in Sanford, Fla., the encounter has been a lightning rod. The first big battle was over whether Zimmerman, a neighborhood-watch volunteer, should stand trial at all. The authorities did not arrest him until 45 days after the shooting — after the Martin family applied pressure and hundreds of thousands of people signed a petition.

Two warring narratives quickly emerged. To Martin’s sympathizers, the shooting represented everything that is wrong with race relations in 21st century America. They saw an innocent young man who was simply going out for an evening snack run. In their view, the case reflected the racial profiling and risk of violence that young black men face every day in America.

To Zimmerman’s supporters, it was a clear-cut case of self-defense. They said Zimmerman had every right to approach someone who appeared to be acting suspiciously near his home. And they pointed to the fact that Martin had been suspended from school three times, among other demerits, as evidence that he needed watching. They insisted that Zimmerman reasonably believed he was at risk of serious bodily harm — which, under Florida law, gave him the right to use deadly force in self-defense.

(MORE: Just Because Zimmerman Started It Doesn’t Mean He’s Guilty)

Both sides hoped the case would definitively resolve this debate, but as the trial went on, it became clear that it could not. Criminal trials are not journalism, which seeks to construct a who-what-when-where-why account. They are set up to answer a narrow question: whether the prosecution has proved a specific charge “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The trouble is, that is not a question anyone outside of the legal system wants answered. The debate raging across the country since last year — in schools, workplaces and bars — has not been, “Do you think the prosecution will be able to prove Zimmerman guilty beyond a reasonable doubt?” It has been, “Do you think Zimmerman murdered Martin?” There is a wide chasm between saying Zimmerman is not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, as the jury did, and saying he is innocent.

If the jury could not tell us what to think of Zimmerman, it had even less to say about the larger issues embedded in the case. Martin’s killing has served as a morality tale, wrapping in it questions of racial profiling, self-defense and gun ownership. But the fact that Zimmerman was found not guilty does not mean young black men are not being racially profiled in large numbers — any more than a conviction would have meant that they are. It does not mean we need more guns — or fewer guns. It does not mean self-defense laws need to be changed — or that they do not.

And therein lies the real takeaway of the Zimmerman case: it is telling us as clearly as it can that for all these months, we have been paying too much attention to it. Like a badly prepared teacher who is overly reliant on in-class movies, we use glitzy trials to raise obliquely things that we should be talking about directly.

Are young black men being racially profiled? Are there too many guns in the hands of private citizens? Does the law give people too much leeway in using deadly force in self-defense? The Zimmerman trial was never going to answer any of those questions. But now that it is over, we should be able to find the time — and the right forum — to tackle them head-on.