PRUDEN: Waiting for a verdict in the George Zimmerman trial in Florida

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

An inattentive lawyer can ruin his case with one badly prepared witness. The prosecutors of the case against George Zimmerman no doubt rue the day they put Rachel Jental on the witness stand, but their case was weak and ineffective, anyway. Soon we’ll see what the jurors think. Theirs, after all, is the only opinion that counts.

The rest of us can only speculate, and judging a criminal case from a distance is mere speculation. Reading a jury is difficult. But some are more qualified to speculate than others.

Alan Dershowitz, the renowned criminal-law professor at Harvard, has reached his own verdict by reading the case from a distance of 1,400 miles.

“I would say there’s reasonable doubt,” he told Newsmax in an interview Wednesday after both the state and the defense rested their case. “I would say nobody knows who started the initial fight. Remember, it’s monumentally irrelevant who’s morally guilty here.”

The Rev. Al Sharpton, the famous pot-boiler from New York, stirred the pot earlier, telling a rally in March that “we’re tired of going to jail for nothing and others going home for something. Zimmerman should have been arrested [the night of the incident].” But Rev. Al, who has incited memorable riots in the past, seems to have had an epiphany, perhaps in company of the television executives at MSNBC, where he has a talk show. Executives even at MSNBC wouldn’t want joint ownership of a race riot.

Reflecting on the trial as opposing lawyers prepared their closing arguments, Rev. Al grew sober, responsible and even eloquent. “No matter [the jury’s] decision,” he says, “there’ll be no winners in this case. If the defense wins, Mr. Zimmerman will have to bear the burden of the accusations and will be known for this throughout life. If the prosecution wins, the family of Trayvon Martin will not get their child back, their brother back.”

The cops and other authorities in Florida are preparing for “protests,” presumably if there’s an acquittal; the streets should be quiet in the wake of a conviction.

What the trial gave us is a needed tutorial about how trials, judges, lawyers and juries actually work. The Constitution guarantees everyone his civil rights, black, white and all the shades between, even if the justice system does not always deliver: The state of Florida must prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that George Zimmerman is guilty of a crime, if not murder, something lesser but nevertheless real. If the state fails to do that, the defendant walks. We saw that principle at work in the trial of O.J. Simpson.

“Reasonable doubt” comes down to percentages, and a verdict of “not guilty” does not mean “innocent,” though many think the two are interchangeable. Newspaper editors once understood this, and never allowed a slovenly account that a suspect was found “innocent.”

“If you think it’s 60 percent likely, or 70 percent or even 80 percent likely that Zimmerman is guilty and doesn’t deserve self-defense,” says Alan Dershowitz, “you [still] have to acquit. It has to be higher than that. It has to be certainly like 90 percent likely before you can say there’s no reasonable doubt. So, if I were on the jury, I would find reasonable doubt.”

Such a verdict would not confer choirboy status. “I certainly would not declare him innocent. There’s the big difference between declaring him innocent and declaring him not guilty.” Mr. Dershowitz observes that the case is confusing. “Self-defense is a very important principle in American law and people forget, too, that the government has the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that he didn’t act in self-defense. They have to prove a negative beyond a reasonable doubt, which is not easy to do.”

Loose talk about what could happen, what might happen, what shouldn’t happen in event of an unpopular verdict borders on irresponsible. One blogger on the Internet, that indispensable fountain of all things wrong, asks whether it would “be appropriate to consider potential riots when deciding on whether or not to prosecute Zimmerman. Or should justice be blind and follow the rule of law?” The blog went “viral,” and days of argument flooded computer screens across the land. That the question was even asked measures the depth of ignorance of how justice works.

Trayvon Martin’s family seems braced for a disappointing verdict, and his parents, though nursing broken hearts, have said everything to discourage a violent response. And now so has Rev. Al. Not guilty does not mean innocent, as most newspaper and television accounts imply. It’s a hard truth, but a necessary one.

Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

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