|This picture shows protestors in Utah, whites and blacks, demonstrating in opposition to the Zimmerman "Not Guilty" Verdict.|
By: Eric J. Davis
Recently, I started teaching undergraduate courses on Criminal Law here in the Houston area through the University of Houston System. My purpose in doing so initially was to stay in tune with the next generation and to increase my understanding of people. I also wanted to challenge people to think and grow. Fortunately, teaching classes has had that effect on me - it has caused me to think and grow deeper as a person. I have learned so much for which I am thankful from some of my students.
During one of our class discussions about wrongful convictions I presented the question, "What do you fear the most, the guilty going free or the innocent being convicted?" I think the question surprised them because there was a long silence before people started to answer. But the answers came.... and they came in bunches. The majority of the students said that they feared the guilty going free the most. I was surprised. I had the romantic notion that students were suppose to be open to new ideas and open to making the world a better place. When I was a youth, I wanted to be a champion of freedom and liberty. How could youth stomach an innocent man being in jail more than a guilty man going free, I thought. I challenged their notions and the debate began. The discussion was lively. One student said, "If the innocent are convicted, then it is very probable that a guilty man will still go free because the innocent man will be in jail in his place." I stopped and thought about the truth of his statement. In cases where a crime has been committed and the issue is who committed the crime, if an innocent man is convicted, the guilty man isn't. He is free to commit more crimes. Taking it a step further, if an innocent man is convicted in any type of case, aren't we all then guilty of unjustifiably taking his liberty?
I realized that there was a reason students felt the way they did about this question. Many had life experiences that shaped their perception of crime and punishment. Those students that were more apt to have the most conservative views generally feared the guilty going free. The students who were not as conservative generally feared the innocent being convicted. But this was not always so. The question really seemed to reveal a tolerance level for authoritarianism. It was so effective that I started using it during Voir Dire in trials. I ask the question of the entire panel and I have each prospective juror answer out loud. I have people answer, "Guilty" if they fear the guilty going free and I have people answer "Innocent" if they fear the innocent being convicted. Surprisingly, a lot of people answer "Guilty." And some of those people were people who had answered no other question. So those people would have made it on the jury had I not asked this question.
When we think about the George Zimmerman trial, what's our answer to that question? Does race cloud our answer? Meaning, do we pick a side because of our respective race when we answer? Or, is our answer shaped by our life experiences? Does the age of the kid cloud our answer? What do we fear most, Zimmerman being actually innocent of the crime and going to prison? Or Zimmerman being actually guilty of the crime and going free? Herein lies the answer.