The obligatory “George Zimmerman verdict” post

Okay, kids, it’s time to put on our 1L hats and sit in Criminal Law class.  Let’s talk about what criminal law is, what we need for a conviction, and due process.

Criminal laws describe concrete, objective actions, and sometimes an associated mental state, which are prohibited.   For example, it is unlawful to break into someone’s house with the intent to commit a felony therein, but it is not unlawful to break into your own home because you forgot the key. This enables people to be put on notice of what actions are allowed and are not allowed, and also enables us to increase the penalties for particularly gruesome actions.  For example, premeditated murder results in a stiffer jail sentence than does vehicular homicide after a car hits a patch of ice. There’s still a dead body, and still a person responsible for that, but we don’t mete out the same punishments, nor even call those the same crime.

Ah, yes, penalties.  We do not throw people in jail because they make generic bad decisions, unless those bad decisions violate a law.  Failure to throw someone in jail does not mean that we like what they did, think it’s a good idea, or want other people to act the same way.

That’s because we only throw people in jail when the prosecution has proved every element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.  We’re all familiar with the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, but there is also the right to an acquittal, even if one does not do a single thing in one’s own defence.  You can just sit there and be acquitted: it’s the prosecution’s job to show that you have committed this crime, not your job to show that you did not.

The prosecution’s burden is to prove every element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. If there is no reasonable doubt as to a single element of the crime, then the correct, just, and lawful result is to acquit.  You don’t convict because you don’t like the person, think he’s a moron with a gun, think he’s overzealous, or want to appease race-baiters: you only convict when each and every element of the crime has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

I do not believe that those calling the Zimmerman verdict a miscarriage of justice would want to live in a world wherein the above principles were not embraced.  The rioters would be ill-served by upending criminal law and replacing it with a system wherein we decide if we like the person, or if we think her actions were good, or wherein we judge the worthiness of the victim, not the actions of the alleged perpetrator.

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