Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Trial by Media

Did you know that there is a murder trial going on in Florida? 

I'm willing to bet you did. I'm willing to bet that you know a lot about the trial even if you've never watched a second of testimony. I'm willing to bet you even have an opinion.

I usually flip back and forth between the Today Show and CNN in the morning while I get ready for work (usually flipping the Today show when a Justin Bieber story or the like appears). Both shows, like every newscast, include updates about the George Zimmerman trial. Experts appear and opine about the day's events and the testimony.

It's the conclusions that slay me. Everyone purports to know what was going on inside Zimmerman's mind, Martin's mind, or the attorneys' minds (if they even have one - seriously a knock-knock joke). CNN even has the scales of justice weighed evenly on a screen and after the morning's discussion and dissection of the case, Chris Cuomo puts his hand on the screen and shows us all which side the evidence is favoring.

And this is how we form our opinions. Not on the facts or the evidence. It's the experts who tell us where the case is headed or what something means, which influences our own opinions. There will be outrage over the verdict no matter what happens and I'm confident to say the most outraged will probably know nothing more than the opinions fed to them by the major news networks. The only opinions that matter in this case is that of the jurors who have been selected and tasked with that responsibility.

In a smaller community like mine, most violent criminal trials turn into news stories. I never read anything about it during the case. No attorney wants a Monday morning quarterback. We barely want to answer our colleagues questions about the case and we cringe at their "helpful" suggestions of what we can do better. None of it matters because it is in the hands of the jury.

Once the Zimmerman verdict is handed down, speculation will help stoke the fire of the outrage because the verdict will be assailed no matter what it is. Let's just hope that the verdict does not lead to any more violence. The death of one boy should not be the instigation for the death of more.


  1. Yes, I sure hope we don't have problems after this verdict, too. I generally don't follow trials closely, but let me ask you this: how are people supposed to interpret what they hear when a defense expert witness directly contradicts the prosecution's expert witness?

    1. The defense attorney's job is to make the prosecutor prove their client guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Sometimes it means just using cross-examination to poke holes in the case. Sometimes it means calling witnesses to contradict other witnesses.

      The jury is tasked with determining the credibility of every witness using some common sense tools - is there a bias, is there a motive to lie, is the testimony plausible, etc. It is up to the cross-examiner to pull all of these credibility factors from the witness. So the defense expert is a hired gun, paid by Zimmerman to provide favorable testimony and other stuff.

      It is really for those that are sitting in the courtroom all day every day to determine whether the expert is accurate. We only hear soundbites and snippets, but those might be totally contradicted by other evidence we do not know, or the jury might credit one expert more than another.

      In the end, the defense team is hoping to put this expert on and say, "Look, there's evidence cutting both ways. That's the definition of reasonable doubt and you must find my client not guilty."

      Long reply, but hope it helps.

  2. As my criminal law professor would say, it's a "battle of the experts." These battles are the most difficult to win, because as you say, when you've got two experts contradicting each other, the defense has the simplest argument to make ... reasonable doubt.