Argue the law

stoneI didn’t start seriously watching Law & Order until the show (and the police procedural in general) were pretty much played out, so it was a revelation when Netflix enabled me to start watching from the beginning. As cliché as the show’s promise of ripped-from-the-headlines stories would get, it really did a terrific job of capturing the cultural mood of its era.

One very early episode, “Subterranean Homeboy Blues,” presents the case of a white woman who shoots two black men on the subway, and gets through her trial essentially on the argument that the shooting was justified because black men are scary. It was apparently based on the case of Bernhard Goetz, and I got to thinking about it over the weekend as the George Zimmerman trial was wrapping up. And I think there’s more than the obvious parallels worth considering here.

I deliberately didn’t pay much attention to the actual Zimmerman trial, because I think turning one particular case into a cultural event does a disservice to basically everyone involved.

Law & Order is one of the most important police procedurals ever made, if only because it doesn’t use the easy conceit that every case ends with an arrest and the trial is just a footnote. But it’s also done a fair amount of damage, by presenting prosecutors as arbiters of morality rather than enforcers of the law. Some of the show’s most interesting cases deal with issues where Ben Stone or Jack McCoy or Mike Cutter go looking for a way to stretch the definition of what’s illegal in order to satisfy their own moral outrage.

But while the show tells us that two groups represent the people in our criminal justice system — “the police who investigate crime, and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders” — hardly anything gets said about the lawmakers who decide what’s a crime in the first place.

For instance, maybe the reason local authorities originally didn’t bother pursuing the case was that they had the law right: Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law gives someone involved in a confrontation the right to use deadly force even if they could just retreat from the fight. Which allowed Zimmerman to claim self defense and made it nearly impossible for the police or a prosecutors to establish anything different, since Zimmerman had killed the only other witness.

One other thing: If Trayvon Martin’s death hadn’t become a cultural event, it’s likely there wouldn’t have been a trial in the first place. But if all that attention is really going to accomplish something, it’s worth remembering what the issue was.

Florida’s stand-your-ground law has only been around since 2005, but more than 30 states have copied it, meaning that more cases like this one could happen in plenty of other parts of the country and have probably happened already. The state of New York revised its legal standard for self-defense after the Bernhard Goetz case, and everyone who thinks that Trayvon Martin’s death set off a huge miscarriage of justice would be well served to remember that laws can change again.

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