Seeking ‘Just Justice’
It can happen in an instant. A police officer fires a gun and someone is killed. The “victim” might be a dangerous criminal, a person with mental problems or an innocent bystander. Even with all the smartphone videos recording the scene from different perspectives, it can be difficult to tell what happened.
As any prosecutor or criminal defense attorney will tell you, eyewitness testimony is often not consistent. Was the slain person running toward the officer with a knife, or running away with his hands in the air when the shot was fired? In the Trayvon Martin case in Sanford, Florida, there were major discrepancies in the accounts of the incident and among the “experts” testifying in court.
But regardless of the facts of the case, there always seems to be an immediate rush to judgment. Newspapers, radio and TV stations and social media are quickly saturated by various accounts of the event. Everyone connected with an incident — family members, people on the scene, so-called experts, and the police department — seems to have an opinion or puts out a statement.
While these comments can fuel a media “feeding frenzy,” and turn regular people into media stars, they also distract from the proper course of justice. After all, it’s much easier to stir up a neighborhood with cries for “justice” than to wait for a police investigation and criminal prosecution to run its course.
It’s understandable for communities to be concerned about the actions of police officers, particularly if there has been a persistent pattern of unequal treatment of minority groups. Racism remains a serious problem in American society, undermining our nation’s core value of “liberty and justice for all.”
But regardless of the underlying social issues or tensions in a community, a police shooting case needs to be examined carefully and in light of that immediate situation. After all, law enforcement officers are just as entitled to due process as any other citizen. It is a mistake to blame a police officer — or the “victim” — before an investigation brings to light as many facts as possible. Even then, it may be up to a jury to sort through the conflicting accounts and see if a verdict can be reached that meets the standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
So, rather than seeking “justice for” someone or giving “justice to” someone in the court of public opinion, we must let the judicial process take its course. Only then will we find “just justice.”
South Florida Legal Guide Midyear 2015 Edition