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What Would Atticus Do and Say?
Last summer I wrote a column on the Casey Anthony trial that called on us as profession to defend or at least not immediately condemn a jury verdict. I was concerned then that our justice system was being hijacked by the 24/7 media and the need for legal talking heads to fill time on so-called news shows. The recent tragic death of Trayvon Martin has brought this same issue to the forefront again. As I consider Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman and the police and prosecutors involved in this case, I can’t help but ask, “What would Atticus Finch do and say about this case?”
First, I am certain that Atticus would find the death of Trayvon Martin tragic, unnecessary and profoundly sad. I share in those sentiments. If you want to use Trayvon’s tragic death as a vehicle to have a conversation about race, profiling, the stand-your-ground law and wrongheaded stereotypes, I think Atticus would be right there with you. Atticus and I might even don a hoodie and march right next to you. We should have those discussions.
Far too many people and certainly far too many talking heads want to carry the conversation farther to talk about the guilt or innocence of George Zimmerman and the need for “justice” for Trayvon. Trayvon should have justice. His parents should have justice. Our society should have justice. Justice is not a trial in the media followed by a quick execution of George Zimmerman. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a huge fan of Mr. Zimmerman. I don’t know if he is legally responsible for the death of Trayvon Martin or not. Morally, I certainly think he will be held to account for his actions that night in February.
I am certain, however, that Atticus would tell us this case should be decided without regard to public opinion. Angela Corey, the special prosecutor called to look at this case, should have had unfettered discretion to review the evidence and look at the law before making her decision to charge or not charge Zimmerman based on the evidence. Even though he is now charged, we should not immediately jump to conclusions as to his guilt or innocence. Now a jury can be empanelled and hear the evidence. Only after a jury returns a verdict or the parties reach a plea bargain can we say that there has been justice. Justice is a process. It is not an end result.
After the shooting, various news organizations showed footage of Zimmerman coming out of the police car and suggested that footage showed no injuries. The implication was that his version of what happened that night must not be true. Then a few days later “enhanced” video of the same event purportedly shows that Zimmerman may have had a mark or marks on the back of his head. Are we to now conclude that his version of the events is true? I don’t think so.
As attorneys, we owe it to our fellow attorneys in Florida, to our justice system and to society to reserve judgment on this entire matter and to encourage others to do the same. Like it or not, conversations at the water cooler, after church in the fellowship hall or at a cocktail party matter. Our role in those opportunities matters. We can either lead and help educate or we can become a part of the media-driven frenzy. Be a leader. Do and say as Atticus would undoubtedly do and say in this case. Do and say as John Adams did when he defended a British soldier at the height of public opinion against the British. Reserve judgment until such time as all the facts come out. While you are at it, call on others to do the same — that’s what Atticus would do and say.
TBA President DANNY VAN HORN is a partner with Butler, Snow, O'Mara, Stevens and Cannada PLLC in Memphis.