When “Not Guilty” Might Also Mean “Not Innocent”
It’s strange how some criminal cases come to captivate the public mind while others fade quickly.
This last weekend saw the conclusion, at least for the moment, of the Trayvon Martin murder case. As trials go, the evidence in this one seemed fairly straight forward. There were no questions as to how Mr. Martin died, or where, or when, or at whose hands. There were relatively few legal battles about what evidence could be submitted or who could testify – save for the question of whose voices were heard crying out on the 9-1-1 tape. The early work by the Sanford Police Department didn’t appear overly botched, there was a span of only about 16 months between Trayvon’s shooting and the trial (reasonable, by today’s court standards) and the trial itself was notable for its speed.
And after all this – after three weeks of non-stop live courtroom coverage punctuated by airy conjectures and millions of spilled words in blog posts and the seizure of America’s journalism apparatus by this one case – the jury returned a verdict of not guilty. It’s a decision that has left some angry at George Zimmerman, some angry at Martin, others angry at the jury and still others angry at the criminal justice system.
Lost in it all is what must be the continuing desperate tragedy of those who loved Trayvon, and how his absence will continue to be felt by friends and family for decades to come.
Some of this feels too familiar.
We understand being frustrated by the legal process and criminal justice system. We really do get being disappointed once a not guilty verdict or decision is handed down and a gross injustice remains unpunished. And we can only empathize with those whose lives are turned inside out by a sudden, violent act.
The verdict “not guilty” in any case involving someone’s death is always disappointing. It hangs in the air like an unresolved chord. For those charged, the court merely says that guilt has not been proven by whatever standard. It emphatically does not say the defendant is innocent, much as they might wish that cloud over their heads dispersed. For the prosecutors, it’s probably an invitation for self-doubt, blame and endless regression and regret. And for those family and friends…well, it’s fairly obvious.
There is a simple fact that everyone knows in the Martin murder case: George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin. He is both not guilty of second-degree murder and not innocent at the same time. The blood on his gun, now back in his blood-covered hands, will never fully wash away.
In the Wone conspiracy trial, Judge Lynn Leibovitz, not a jury, was the finder of fact. Those facts include:
- The murder was not committed by an intruder unknown to defendants Joe Price, Victor Zaborsky and Dylan Ward,
- Robert Wone was entirely immobile at the time of his stabbing,
- It’s very likely Joe Price tampered with and altered the murder weapon, including pulling it from Robert Wone’s body,
- Victor Zaborsky specifically, and all three housemates generally, displayed a demeanor wholly at odds with what anyone would expect from an innocent person who’s friend had just been murdered tragically and violently,
- Joe Price was arrogant, unconcerned, flippant, aggressive, self-centered and dismissive,
- Dylan Ward was distant and detached, unmoved, patient and calm, and also was apparently unmotivated to help police solve this terrible crime,
- It is likely that one of the defendants knew who murdered Robert Wone and/or covered it up, and that very probably the government’s theory was correct, and lastly
- That she, as finder of fact, was convinced at least one of the trouple were hiding things and knew more than he was saying about the events of August 2nd, 2006.
Of course, all three were found not guilty of the charges brought against them of conspiracy, evidence tampering and obstruction of justice, largely because of what Judge Leibovitz termed “the math problem” – namely that one or two of the threesome probably had greater involvement and knowledge than what they admitted, but it was also possible that a least one might have been an odd man out, genuinely innocent of knowledge and involvement. Given that the Swann Family quickly closed their mouths, still sealed almost 7 years later, determining which one was the odd man was nearly impossible.
In sum: Price, Zaborsky and Ward were not guilty. But they are not innocent.
Following the Martin trial verdict, several people have been quoted in news reports as saying something to the effect that Trayvon Martin’s killing will remain with Zimmerman for the rest of his life, that he will never escape it and it will burden his soul to his last day.
“Not guilty” may, in fact, drape about former defendants like a sort of karmic dead weight resulting in some form of justice. We’re unconvinced.
What we do believe, however, is that secrets can only remain secret for so long. Sooner or later the truth emerges. Only then will true guilt and innocence be established.