Over the weekend, hip-hot artist Jasiri X posted this image on his twitter feed. It’s taken from the front page of the New York Daily News’ website. Note the screaming headline and the sympathetic caption: “Accused killer Dylann Roof had one chance at a stable family life — and his abusive dad ruined it for…
I wonder if it ever occurs to journalists, when they’re covering legal matters, that the court system often does a much better job uncovering truth than the media does. As the New York Times reported Tuesday:
Lawyers for George Zimmerman, who is charged with second-degree murder in the killing of Trayvon Martin, will be barred from mentioning Mr. Martin’s marijuana use, history of fights or high school suspension during opening statements in Mr. Zimmerman’s trial, which begins June 10.
At a hearing Tuesday in a Seminole County court, Circuit Judge Debra Steinberg Nelson denied a string of defense motions concerning evidence that was intended to portray Mr. Martin as a troubled teenager with a propensity for fighting and an interest in guns. Prosecutors argued that such evidence had nothing to do with Mr. Martin’s death.
Mark O’Mara, Mr. Zimmerman’s lawyer, argued that Mr. Martin’s drug use could have made him aggressive and paranoid, which the defense said might have prompted him to attack Mr. Zimmerman, 29, a neighborhood watch volunteer.
“All of that fits in squarely to what the defense is going to present: that George Zimmerman was put in the position that he had to act in self-defense,” Mr. O’Mara said. “How could you keep us from arguing that?”
Judge Nelson replied, “The rules of evidence keep you from doing it.”
Imagine that. The rules of evidence force lawyers, judges, and juries to focus their attention only on facts that are actually relevant to the case. Which is to say, those rules prevent the lawyers from bringing up matters that may prejudice the jury, but do not tend to prove or disprove the material issue in the case – i.e., whether George Zimmerman acted in self-defense the night he shot and killed an unarmed seventeen year old.
And it’s not just the rules of evidence that keep the legal quest for the truth on track. In criminal cases, under the Supreme Court’s decision in Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), a prosecutor is required to turn over to the defense all evidence that “would tend to exculpate [the defendant] or reduce the penalty” the defendant is facing. In civil cases, the parties are entitled to request – and are obligated to produce – all documents and other information relevant to the underlying case, or which may lead to the discovery of admissible evidence. Moreover, even though a lawyer is obligated to represent his or her client as zealously as possible within the bounds of the law, lawyers cannot permit their clients to give false testimony or to make false statements in pleadings filed with the court.
And these are not just ethical niceties we talk about in law school classrooms. I’ve been trying cases for 26 years, and I can assure you that every lawyer confronts situations where clients want to withhold damning evidence from the other side or want to testify in deposition or at trial in a manner the lawyer knows is not 100% consistent with the truth. Every lawyer encounters these situations, and most – obviously, I can’t say all, but most – lawyers will then have that come-to-Jesus conversation with the client: No, sir, you can’t say that under oath, even if it would help your case. And if you do, I have to tell the judge you perjured yourself.
You wonder why the vast majority of lawsuits settle? It’s because the truth ordinarily lies somewhere between the story your client tells you and the story your opponent tells his/her/its lawyer. As cases wind their way through the process, the truth tends to come out, and it’s the lawyers, most of the time, who force their clients to see it. It’s amazing what coming face-to-face with the truth will do to parties once hell-bent on each other’s destruction.
And when cases do go to trial, as they often do despite the propensity of rational people to settle their disputes, not only do the rules of evidence limit what can and cannot be presented to the jury, but the jury withholds its ruling until all the evidence is in. Juries don’t stop after each witness testifies to comment publicly on the case. They don’t reach their verdict as soon as the prosecution or the plaintiff rests, but wait to hear the defendant’s case, too. No breathless announcements or jumping-to-conclusions halfway through the process; no conjecture about what tomorrow’s evidence might show; no color commentary as the evidence is still coming in.
So, anyway, I wonder, when a reporter reports on a case like George Zimmerman’s – a highly publicized case about which the media has been speculating and jumping to conclusions since the get-go – whether that reporter ever stops to think: Gee, maybe we should engage in the truth-finding process like lawyers do. Maybe we should limit our discussion to facts that are actually relevant to Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence. Maybe the fact that a seventeen year old occasionally acted like a seventeen year old – smoking a little pot, getting into an occasional fistfight, getting disciplined at school – has no bearing on whether, on the night in question, George Zimmerman reasonably believed this unarmed seventeen year old posed an actual threat sufficient to justify the use of deadly force.
And maybe we should wait till at least some of the actual facts are known before reporting them, instead of reporting speculation as fact.
Don’t get me wrong. Despite the court’s evidentiary rulings, I fully expect the Zimmerman trial to turn into a complete fiasco, as high-profile criminal trials often do. That will happen, in part, because our criminal justice system bends over backwards to enable defendants to put on every legally recognizable defense available to them. Remember, the point of a criminal trial is not to determine guilt or innocence; it’s to determine whether the state can prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. No one is ever found “innocent”; only “not guilty” – and those are not the same thing. But it will also happen because of the media circus that will accompany the trial, which is inevitable where journalists are more concerned about headlines and bottom lines than they are about facts and justice.
The truth is, lawyers, judges, and juries don’t always get it right, but at least we have rules that limit the extent to which we can abuse the truth. The press doesn’t. Instead, it has a powerful financial incentive to publish the most salacious details it can get its hands on. Even about an unarmed seventeen year old who didn’t deserve to die.