The outrage that flew across social media after George Zimmerman was found not guilty was almost legendarily intense. And scary. And most of all, it was self-righteous. People wanted to know how someone they had deemed so obviously guilty and so obviously racist could have gotten away with such a crime. Twitter demanded to know how the jury could have been so heartless. Facebook declared that in 50 years, we'd look back on this decision and be ashamed. Social justice bloggers across every platform raised serious concerns about our ethics and integrity as Americans.
And pretty much everyone missed the point.
The trial of George Zimmerman is a classic example of the intersection of morality and legality in our justice system when it comes to social issues, or lack thereof. This is because a judicial trial is not about whether someone is guilty, but whether they can be proven guilty -- a small, but crucial difference that is often overlooked. Furthermore, in order to procure a guilty ruling in a criminal suit like George Zimmerman's, the prosecution must prove "beyond all reasonable doubt" that the defendant is guilty. This means that the jury must be convinced that there is pretty much no possible situation in which the defendant did not commit the crime. In the case of George Zimmerman -- and in many cases occurring every day -- when it comes to the murder he was accused of, there was a lot of doubt. The fact is, most crimes are not committed on well-lit street corners under the watchful eyes of willing and ready witnesses, and this one was no exception. There were no eyewitnesses to the death of Trayvon Martin. There was no definite record of what happened. Instead, there was a lot of substantive evidence swirling around the way George Zimmerman acted before and after the shooting.
This is the evidence that inflamed Twitter, and Facebook and quickly spread across news media -- the reports that Zimmerman might have uttered a racial slur during the call, that he emphasized Trayvon's race, that he had profiled people in the past, etc. In the eyes of the public, this was pretty incriminating information. However, in the eyes of the court, this was character evidence. Which made it inadmissible by the prosecution in a criminal trial unless first introduced by the defense. Racism, or any of the other -isms (unless the subject of federal charges for a hate crime) are not illegal on their own. And in the end, even though they might have been what motivated the crime, George Zimmerman's trial wasn't really about racism. Or profiling. Or any of the serious social issues that found a face and a voice in Trayvon Martin. It was about whether there was any possible doubt that George Zimmerman did not act in defense when he killed Trayvon Martin. Which is why the trial was never necessarily the place to focus on, if those social issues were what you cared about.
Today, over a year and a half after Trayvon Martin's death, 26 states still have Stand Your Ground laws. These laws have been shown to raise violent crime by 8 percent , and result in the killer being acquitted in 78 percent of the cases where the victim was of color, as opposed to 56 percent of the cases where the victim was white, according to mediamatters.org. In addition, racial profiling is still an issue across the U.S., with black males being incarcerated at 6 times the rate of white males according to the NAACP. And those are just two small examples of why it is totally valid, in this day and age, to be upset about racism, about profiling, about everything thrust into the open after Trayvon Martin's death. To take to Twitter, to Facebook, to social justice blogs and express anger and frustration about the unequal ways people are treated every day across the U.S. and across the world. But blaming the jury for doing what a jury does -- deciding if there is reasonable doubt -- is neither constructive nor helpful for the greater implicit social issues.
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly referenced the date of Trayvon Martin's death. The error has since been corrected.