Editor’s note: Jason Johnson is an HLN contributor and professor of political science at Hiram College in Ohio. He is the author of “Political Consultants and Campaigns: One Day to Sell.” He is on Twitter.
Almost 20 years ago this week, America fell in love with televised trials. On July 7, 1995, O.J. Simpson’s “Dream Team” defense took over his murder trial and televised court proceedings were transformed from a novelty for seniors and stay-at-home moms to must-see TV.
America was split, with many people rooting for Simpson’s conviction and others praying for him to be found innocent. The courtroom changed from a legal proceeding to a spectacle, a talking point, a sporting event, with the public wanting scores and breakdowns every day.
So it’s fitting, sadly, that this week, George Zimmerman’s defense team will take the stage and many Americans still want to see this newest “Trial of the Century” analyzed and broken down, play by play.
But the Zimmerman trial is different, and it might be time for us to realize that we can’t rate this case like others in the past.
Most televised trials don’t have sides. While we watched the Jodi Arias, Menendez brothers and Casey Anthony trials, it was more for the spectacle than any larger issues or passions. But that's not the case with the Zimmerman trial. Even if polls show that Americans believe Zimmerman is guilty, there are sides, and many people believe that there are real consequences to this trial.
Legal analysts, court observers and scholars provide analysis and context for the Zimmerman trial, but explaining which legal team made a good argument is not the same thing as keeping a tally of wins and losses, which is what all too many people want.
It is perfectly understandable why some want the Zimmerman trial to be scored like a football game. As a nation, we aren’t too fond of long, drawn-out and nuanced experiences. We want a poll after every debate, a score after every witness, and winner or loser after every cross and redirect. Why? Because many Americans are heavily ideologically and politically invested in the outcome of the Zimmerman trial in a way we haven’t seen since the Simpson trial.
Some gun owners want to see Zimmerman found not guilty because they believe his claim of self-defense validates their fight against gun control. Some Civil Rights leaders want to see Zimmerman found guilty because they believe it will show the criminal justice system treating African-Americans with equality. Some conservatives support Zimmerman because they resent the fact that political pressure and protests from the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton led to his arrest. Other organizations see a Zimmerman conviction as a blow to “Stand Your Ground” laws across America.
The list goes on and on, and supporters on each side want a halftime show during every recess or bench approach to show that their side is effectively moving the ball down the field. The problem with this belief is that the Zimmerman trial is not a game, and it’s definitely not a guaranteed political game changer.
There is no score to be kept because the realities of this case are not as high-minded as many of us would like to think they are. If Zimmerman is found innocent, it is not a victory for gun advocates. If you replay this scenario in a dozen states with a dozen juries, you will likely get different verdicts. If Zimmerman is found guilty, it does not strike a national blow against racism or police discrimination, nor will it stop the next Trayvon Martin from being killed. There will still be vigilantes, and there will still be police departments that don't do their due diligence.
Whatever ideology we believe will be served by a particular verdict, we can’t expect daily winners and losers. There’s nothing to truly cheer about in a trial about the death of a 17-year-old kid, and it’s certainly no time to keep score.
The United States is one of the few countries that allow television cameras in the courtroom. Consequently, this case is a civics lesson in how our flawed but functional legal system works. More specifically, this case is about whether the state can prove that Zimmerman had another option to defend himself other than shooting Martin.
No one can truly win or lose the day in a trial like this -- and no amount of Twitter fights, Facebook posts and coffee shop conversations will change that. We would all be better served if we simply watched the process play out and continue to engage our legal system no matter what the final verdict is.