George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, was found not guilty by a Florida jury in the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager.
"They simply never had an overwhelming case," Kendall Coffey, a former US attorney in Miami, said in a phone interview. "Only one participant survived the killing and he claimed self-defence. These are never easy cases."
A not-guilty verdict is likely to trigger a fierce debate over self-defence laws, Marcellus McRae, a former federal prosecutor now at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP in Los Angeles, said in a phone interview before the jury's decision.
"What's this suggesting?" McRae said. "Can all of us basically deputise ourselves, questioning people we think are suspicious?"
you may be wondering what this has to do with cycling. the answer is: it holds some strong clues about why we struggle to get justice for cyclists on the road. there are striking parallels with attempts to prosecute motorists who have struck cyclists, namely:
- a unique US culture of gun ownership and use which has normalised such behaviour, where it would be seen as outrageous and unjustified in others - such as in australia.
- this is similar to our motoring-centric culture, in which the act of striking and killing or seriously injuring a cyclist is broadly seen as normal, in that the motorist tends to be perceived as just going about their everyday business, only that a cyclist happened to get killed or maimed in the process.
- the victim being a part of a minority which is broadly viewed with suspicion. trayvon martin caught the attention of george zimmerman while simply walking down the street after buying a bag of Skittles. it was not likely the skittles which caught his attention.
- misunderstanding or disrespect for cyclists' rights to use roads has similarly been associated with a broad lack of sympathy for them, when injured in collisions with motor vehicles.
and the most important one:
- a justice system which has institutionalised protections for shooters. the defence of zimmerman's acquittal has mostly been around "the justice system took its course - justice is blind". but justice is not blind. it may or may not be in the courtroom, but the protections put in place which govern how courts adjudicate over such cases certainly are not. they place very little onus on shooters to defend their actions. this makes securing a conviction difficult.
- most or all of the above apply to cycling. in recent prosecutions of drivers who have killed or injured cyclists, the courts have been unable to compel the drivers to substantially defend the standard of their driving. all that was necessary for the defence was to cast doubt on whether the cyclist may have been negligent.
most reasonable people will look at the Zimmerman case and shake their heads, wondering how this guy was allowed to walk free. cyclists in Australia do the same thing, in cases against what appear to be very straightforward examples of dangerous driving resulting in serious injury or death to cyclists. justice should not be about complex legal principles and clever lawyers turning black into white - it should be about upholding community standards of behaviour.
the crucial point in all of the above points is that the relevant standards of behaviour - the defensible use of firearms or operation of a motor vehicle - are set well before these cases go to court. so long as the law fails to deliberately and explicitly impose higher standards of behaviour - on the use of firearms in the US or drivers in australia (and elsewhere) - prosecutors will continue to be forced to undertake prosecutions with one hand tied behind their back.
people will say "the court followed due process, justice was served" but justice is not served when the court or legal process is wrong in the first place.