- - Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Although George Zimmerman has finally been found not guilty, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid warned, “this isn’t over with.” Before the next drama unfolds, let’s take a moment to reflect on this ordeal. In doing so, real-life civic heroes emerge. Those men are Mark O'Mara and Don West. We can compare them to Atticus Finch from Harper Lee’s 1960 novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” in this respect: Under enormous pressure, they defended an innocent client whom vocal and powerful elements of society were quick to condemn.

In this classic portrayal of life in the Deep South, Tom Robinson is the hapless victim of a false rape accusation leveled in a society that was highly biased to believe the charges regardless of the evidence, or lack thereof. Atticus Finch is the defense attorney willing to endure the wrath of a hostile public in order to defend an innocent client, and ultimately, to do what is morally right. Mark O'Mara is modern-day America’s answer to Atticus Finch. Don West also deserves enormous credit, yet he does not have the detached and martyred air that Mr. O'Mara shares with Atticus. Mr. West could not contain his exasperation when faced with an incredibly unprofessional prosecution and judge. Mr. O'Mara, in an equally valid response, chose to keep his Zen.

Mr. O'Mara betrays a steely toughness with a Giuliani-esqe lisp. During the news conference after the verdict, a reporter from the Times of London tritely asked, “You mentioned something about George wanting to get his life back there’s one person who’s not going to. Have you got any words for the family of Trayvon Martin?” Mr. O'Mara genuflected appropriately to indicate his sympathy, but then continued:

“I’m not going to shy away from the fact that the evidence supported that George Zimmerman did nothing wrong, and that he was battered and beaten by a 17-year-old who for whatever reason, we won’t know, thought that he had to lash out and attack violently. And it turns out that all of the forensic evidence supports that. None of it supports that George was ever the aggressor. Certainly not legally, and I don’t think morally.

“Do you have any message?” the reporter asked again, undeterred. And this is the way it goes. When it comes to the media, any voice that contradicts their viewpoint tends to speak right past them. Reporters’ follow-up questions often show no indication that they have mentally absorbed the initial response. They don’t hear what they don’t want to hear.

Atticus and Mr. O'Mara share a quality that Ernest Hemingway called “grace under fire”; they throw themselves unflinchingly into a worthy cause. Says Atticus to his young daughter Scout about his trial:

” you’ll have to keep your head about far worse things sometimes we have to make the best of things, and the way we conduct ourselves when the chips are down maybe you’ll look back on this with some compassion and some feeling that I didn’t let you down. This case, Tom Robinson’s case, is something that goes to the essence of a man’s conscience — Scout, I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man.”

He continues, “The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.” Let’s be grateful this wasn’t trial by majority as conceived by CNN or MSNBC, in which case Mr. Zimmerman would have been locked up without a key.

In his acerbic wit and his exasperation with the incompetence of those around him, Mr. West reminds one of the “Breaking Bad” character Walter White. “This case went from tragedy to travesty,” he explained to reporters after the verdict, refusing to assume the meekly magnanimous tone one might otherwise expect. What does he mean by “travesty” a reporter asked, as though that were not self-evident. “The travesty would have been a travesty of justice had George Zimmerman been convicted.” Was Judge Debra Nelson fair? “I’d like to keep my bar license for a couple of years,” he responded, provoking the reporters to laughter, leaving unspoken his obvious meaning. Mr. West also chided the reporters for the media’s irresponsibility in being “swept along with this narrative that turned out not to be true.” Will they be chastened? Come on — are they ever?

It’s almost startling to see individuals on television who are intelligent, articulate and fight for a worthy cause. We have plenty of smart people deceiving the public, but not much of the sort who actually speak truth to power, and this is what the O’Mara-West defense team represents, considering the power structures they were up against.

In the end, the jury made the only sensible decision. However, speaking on “Meet the Press,” the Rev. Al Sharpton reminds us ominously that the advocates for Trayvon have not “exhausted their legal options.” One can just hope that Mr. O'Mara and Mr. West will continue to play the virtuous lawyers against the cynical — and significant — political forces that oppose them.

Peter Machera is a former professor of English at New Mexico State University.