Zimmerman: Media Circuses Make for Bad Justice

Submitted by: Mike Spindell, Guest Blogger

At this point, to be honest, all of the back and forth regarding “evidence” in the Zimmerman Case that has occurred here over a number of threads has been mere speculation that misses the salient issues raised by this case. The real (admissible) evidence will be presented at the trial and a hopefully an unbiased jury will make its decisions. The issues that we need to discuss from my perspective are:

1. Did the Sanford Police make a mistake in releasing Zimmerman rather quickly and allowing him to retain his gun, which was potential evidence?

2. Was there undue outside influence used upon the police to end their investigation quickly?

 3. Is there a degree of probability that in many Stand Your Ground venues, had the victim been white and the protagonist of color, that the protagonist would have been immediately arrested?

4. What are the purposes of a business oriented lobbying group, like ALEC, in getting “Stand Your Ground” Laws passed?

5. Is this once again an instance where a media circus has poisoned the ability to have a fair trial?

The George Zimmerman shooting of Trayvon Martin has been marked by the typical aspects of what we have come to know as a media circus in American justice. Since this country began, when it comes to criminal justice, our free Press (Media) has found that sensationalism sells. Consequently, when a particular criminal case raises widespread public interest, the Press (Media) fans that interest beyond even the initial public interest. The process of leaking “new evidence” as the case plays out brings with it angry public debate over the significance of the leaked “evidence” and the guilt or innocence of the protagonist.

This creates an uneven public relations battle between the prosecution and the defense. I say uneven because in almost all instances the prosecution has the advantage in terms of media access and also the public’s presumption that the police/prosecution are their protectors. We have seen this occur in this particular case and quite frankly, save for the basic facts that are indisputable; none of us really know what evidence are public relations ploys to sway opinions and what facts will actually be admissible as evidence at trial. What makes this case somewhat different than others is that in this instance the original prosecutor and the Sanford P.D. actively were trying to justify their actions in releasing Zimmerman and not continuing to prosecute him. Their leaks were perhaps attempts to justify their actions. Now that the public uproar has brought in new prosecutors and investigators the leaks to the press may take on a different tone. What we don’t know, as the latest photo of the back of Zimmerman’s head illustrates, is whether the current prosecution is seeking true justice, or continuing to participate in a potential whitewash.

I would like to mention four cases that have occurred in my lifetime that show the problems encountered when sensational cases become prosecuted in the press. The first is the case of Dr. Sam Shepard, a Cleveland physician accused of murdering his wife in 1954, convicted he spent a decade in prison, only to be exonerated at a second trial:

Sheppard was brought to trial in the autumn of 1954. The case is notable for its extensive publicity and what the U.S. Supreme Court called a “carnival atmosphere.” Many have compared the O.J. Simpson trial to it, in terms of the often lurid press coverage it generated.

 Some newspapers and other media in Ohio were accused of bias against Sheppard and inflammatory coverage of the case, and were criticized for immediately labeling Sheppard as the only viable suspect. Some believe that a specific headline from the Cleveland Press, “Why Isn’t Sam Sheppard in Jail?,” clearly indicated the bias of the media against Sheppard. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sam_Sheppard

The second case I’d like to mention is that of Caryl Chessman. Chessman was executed in 1960, having been convicted in a storm of lurid publicity. The issue wasn’t Chessman’s guilt per se, but whether California’s “Little Lindbergh” law should have been applied in a case where there was no murder. The publicity and antipathy towards Chessman, who was no doubt a low life criminal, obscure the fact that he hadn’t committed murder. In fact many proponents of his death lost sight of the fact that this was not a murder case:

“Born in St. Joseph, Michigan, Caryl Chessman was a criminal with a long record who spent most of his adult life behind bars. He had been paroled a short time from prison in California when he was arrested near Los Angeles and charged with being the notorious “Red Light Bandit.” The “Bandit” would follow people in their cars to secluded areas and flash a red light that tricked them into thinking he was a police officer. When they opened their windows or exited the vehicle, he would rob and, in the case of several young women, rape them. In July 1948, Chessman was convicted on 17 counts of robbery, kidnapping, and rape, and was condemned to death.

Part of the controversy surrounding the Chessman case stems from how the death penalty was applied. At the time, under California‘s version of the “Little Lindbergh Law”, any crime that involved kidnapping with bodily harm could be considered a capital offense. Two of the counts against Chessman alleged that he dragged a 17-year-old girl named Mary Alice Meza a short distance from her car demanding oral sex from her. Despite the short distance[citation needed] the woman was moved, the court considered it sufficient to qualify as kidnapping, thus making Chessman eligible for the death penalty.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caryl_Chessman

The last two cases I want to mention are much more familiar to everyone so I’ll just include the links to each one. O.J. Simpson’s murder trial was perhaps the most publicly viewed trial in our Nation’s history. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/O.J._Simpson_murder_trial . Let me first say that I never liked Simpson, either as a football player, actor or celebrity. I thought he was an overrated runner and his public persona always seemed to me to be that of a complete phony and media whore. It was surprising to me then, when the case broke that I began to develop sympathy for someone I see as a loathsome man. What bothered me about this case was that from the beginning the prosecution waged a public relations war to convince the public of O.J.’s guilt, through strategic leaking and via officials making definitive statements about his guilt to the media, prior to even his arraignment.

I watched the entire arraignment and trial on TV at work because the City Agency I worked for was being split up and for literally months I had nothing to do but sit in my large office watching the trial on TV. At night my wife and I would watch the recaps at home. Based on what I saw I feel the verdict acquitting Simpson was the correct one because a credible case for “reasonable doubt” was made. He may well have been guilty, but to me the inept prosecution had botched their case. The reader may feel differently, but I think must admit that there was a firestorm of publicity on the case that made a serious trial into a circus.

Finally, last July prior to the verdict I wrote about “Should We Care About Casey Anthony” as a guest blog: https://jonathanturley.org/2011/07/02/should-we-care-about-casey-anthony/#more-36728 . Afterwards, being retired, I watched the entire trial and truly believe that the correct verdict was also reached based on the evidence and the over charging of the case. The reader again may disagree with my judgment here, but also must admit that the media sensationalism that characterized this trial was way over the top.

In the latter two cases I think that there is some comfort to be take by the fact that the juries in each seemed to actually perform their duty and look at the evidence presented without bias. In the Sheppard Case the defendant was convicted  due to the improper publicity and it took a Supreme Court verdict to help set him free. He left prison a broken ma and both his and his son’s lives were destroyed in their attempt to exonerate his name. This is somewhat less comforting. Caryl Chessman, bad human being that he was, should not have been convicted of kidnapping in the sense of the “Little Lindbergh” law, but deserved a possible life sentence for rape. The pre and post trial publicity made it impossible for California politicians to try to prevent execution.

The Zimmerman case has again raised the wrath of anger and injustice on all sides. Zimmerman has been demonized and his victim Trayvon Martin has also been demonized. Zimmerman’s trial, should he not take a plea, will be a circus raising hackles everywhere. Whatever decision that comes from it will be questioned by people whose minds have been made up via the information leaking out. In the end we will all be victims of yet another diminishment of our legal system via a process we must be very loath to rein in. Democracy and freedom cannot flourish without widespread information on public happenings. There is no one we can honestly give the power to make a decisions as to where the media crosses the line, because invariably all human decisions are ultimately self-serving.

At the outset I posed what I see to be the six salient issues to be drawn from this case, whatever the outcome at trial. I’ve avoided taking sides on these issues, though truthful disclosure by me would say that at this point I believe Zimmerman is probably guilty of some form of aggravated manslaughter, but truly what do I know more than anyone else?

As for the five questions I posed here are my own answers/opinions:

1. Did the Sanford Police make a mistake in releasing Zimmerman rather quickly and allowing him to retain his gun, which was potential evidence? Yes. To me the Police should not ever make the decision as to whether “standing one’s ground” is a viable defense. They need to collect all the evidence and present it to the prosecution. The prosecution must then present it to the court. SYG is for the court/jury to decide.

2. Was there undue outside influence used upon the police to end their investigation quickly? I believe that Zimmerman’s father played a role in trying to avoid charges against his son and that influence was used to try to make the case go away.

3. Is there a degree of probability that in many SYG venues had the victim been white and the protagonist of color, that the protagonist would have been immediately arrested? My belief is that if the shooter had been a person of color and/or what is considered a foreign ethnicity, they would have been arrested in any of those venues with a reversed situation. The only caveat is that if they were someone of wealth or connections, then they might not have been arrested.

 4. What is the purpose of a business oriented lobbying group like ALEC in getting “Stand Your Ground” Laws passed? I think that ALEC has been pushing these particular laws because many large corporations employ security forces that are armed. With these laws many actions by these armed security forces would be held to be justified, thus blameless.

 5. Is this once again an instance where a media circus has poisoned the ability to have a fair trial? Absolutely, as I made clear above.

What then is your opinion on these issues, taking out the guilt, or innocence of George Zimmerman?

Submitted By: Mike Spindell, guest blogger

195 thoughts on “Zimmerman: Media Circuses Make for Bad Justice

  1. Hmm. If I were the Seminole County prosecutor’s office, or the sheriff of Seminole County, or the warden of the jail in Sanford, I’d want to take George Zimmerman down to the hospital for a complete physical. I’d want x-rays, too, especially of his face. Let’s see if his broken nose is healing properly because if it is not, that will be the liability of the jail, you know.

    Also, they should examine Zimmerman both physically and mentally to make sure they have a record of how he has been NOW so that there can’t be allegations of mistreatment LATER when there was no baseline to compare it to.

  2. Had there been no “media circus” there would have been no:

    1. Investigation
    2. Arrest
    3. Firing of Police Chief Lee
    4. possible chance at the real workings of the criminal justice system being exposed

    I’ll trade an elephant or two for that, any day.

  3. ANNOUNCEMENT FROM THE CENTER RING OF THE CIRCUS: LATER TODAY MORE EVIDENCE WILL BE RELEASED, COME ONE COME ALL!!

  4. Now George Zimmerman’s lawyer wants to get rid of the judge who has granted George’s million dollar bail (which he met in a single day). It seems the only kind of cop George wants involved in an investigation is a cop who will unquestioningly believe his story; it seems that the only kind of judge George wants involved in the case is a judge who will not mind it if George doesn’t really tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth; it seems the only kind of situation George wants to take part in is one that he can control and manipulate to his own satisfaction.

    What if he actually DID ask Trayvon Martin, “What are you doing here?” and what if Trayvon Martin actually answered, “I am minding my own business and I don’t have to speak with you, please leave me alone,” and what if George’s response to that was to pull his gun and try to take Trayvon Martin IN for questioning about some imaginary crimes? Would he be admitting it now? What if he told his family doctor NOT to take an x-ray of his nose on 2/27/2012 because he knew he had not even been punched in the nose the night before, but he wanted to look injured, would he be admitting it now? What if he was what O’Mara called “frightened, mistrustful and confused” on the night he apprehended or accosted Trayvon Martin and things didn’t go his way then and he had a challenge to his “little hero complex” — would he be admitting it now?

    So the judge on his case, based on the information in the case itself (remember, this judge did not even KNOW about the PayPal account when, at first, he set a low bail for Zimmerman — it was all over the web and the judge didn’t know about it because LIKE A GOOD JUDGE he was avoiding finding out about the case from outside the courtroom itself) has seen fit to comment on the fact that George is lying, in many different contexts. I think George Zimmerman has made a bed he is going to have to lie in. Pun intended.

  5. On another blog, in response to the charges leveled against Colorado alleged shooter James Holmes, one of the commenters said:

    “It’s truly sickening. God help anyone caught up in the legal system in this country.”

    It’s a good quote. Short, elegant, supportable. Its belief in the availability of divine assistance may be inaccurate, of course, but who’s to say?

  6. It is interesting how, now that the “media circus” has disbanded, inaccurate information is creeping stealthily into the Zimmerman reporting while no challenges are being raised and nobody is being fired for wrong nuances. Channel 5 News in Orlando has this interesting description of the case to report today:

    “The former neighborhood watch leader charged with fatally shooting Trayvon Martin is objecting to prosecutors’ request for his medical records.”

    Read more: http://www.wptv.com/dpp/news/national/george-zimmerman-trayvon-martin-case-zimmerman-objects-when-medical-records-sought-by-prosecutors#ixzz24HERWDc9

    OK, so now George Zimmerman, formerly known as a neighborhood watch volunteer, is now a “former neighborhood watch leader.”

    Now George Zimmerman, formerly described as charged (or “over-charged,” if you’re Dershowitz, Turley or Jeralyn Whatzername) with second-degree murder, or “Murder 2” — is now describ ed as “charged with fatally shooting Trayvon Martin.”

    Now George Zimmerman is seen as “objecting to prosecutors’ request for his medical records,” whereas a mere two days ago, he was fighting a SUBPOENA for those medical records.

    See how his position is being psycholinguistically strengthened as the prosecution’s position is being psycholinguistically weakened?

    I wonder if the prosecution is going along with this extra shot of semantic steroids the defense is getting behind the scenes. Or is it all on the part of the journalists?

  7. Here’s a cute one. From today’s Sanford Herald:

    “It was reported that George and Shellie Zimmerman obtained their concealed weapons licenses together in November 2009 while living in The Retreat at Twin Lakes – the same neighborhood where George would eventually have the altercation with Martin.”

    Read more: The Sanford Herald – Shellie Zimmerman may have concealed weapons license suspended by State

    So just as the “planet” Pluto was downgraded to a “Dwarf Planet” in 2006 by the world’s astronomers, now the world’s journalists are beginning to downgrade the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman to an “altercation” — that George “had” — rather than a “shooting” or a “killing” that George “did” or a “murder” that he is “charged with.”

  8. UPDATE: Now the killing of Trayvon Martin is being called “a confrontation with Martin.” From today’s article:

    “The records being released Wednesday include a photo of former neighborhood watch leader George Zimmerman’s head that was taken by a witness following a confrontation with Martin.” quoted in WPTV on-line.

    Read more: http://www.wptv.com/dpp/news/state/george-zimmerman-trayvon-martin-case-update-prosecutors-releasing-more-documents-in-case#ixzz26v8ouBxC

    So the semantics of it are: First call it a shooting, then a killing, then SYG, then alleged murder, then an “altercation” and then a “confrontation.”

    Pretty soon we will be reading about “the unscheduled meeting between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin held on 2/26/2012.”

    • “So the semantics of it are:”

      Malisha,

      The semantics always tell the story of the spin, but then you know this already.

  9. Mike S, yes, that’s why I’m watching and reading and commenting.

    I sure wish some brilliant (and independently wealthy) sociolinguist would come out with a book NOW about how the language of the articles on the Trayvon Martin case tell the story of Race in America. HELLO HELLO!!

  10. Notorious attention-whore Terry Jones, who wanted to throw a party outside the jail when Zimmerman was being held pending bail hearing, has now come out grabbing press for his support of the video that allegedly caused the current rash of anti-American violence in the Middle East. It made me realize how much of the “media circus” around the Zimmerman case was the result of media pandering to the misplaced dependency needs of angry, resentful gun-toting self-aggrandizing allegedly-threatened puffed up silly childish churlish “I’ll-stand-my-ground-on-YOU-iffin-you-doan-shut-your-mouth” stylin’ PEERS of George Zimmerman. They’re in full bloom today screaming their heads off again, full of sound, fury and offensive language, signifying, once again, nothing. But the fact is that the First Amendment also protects Terry Jones and HIS ILK and he can say any stupid nonsense he pleases.

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