Saturday, June 28, 2014

What Would Atticus Have Done?

Hearing that the mob was going to storm the jail and lynch Tom Robinson, the fictional Atticus Finch stood at the doorway to block their entrance. Among criminal defense lawyers, Atticus Finch is revered as a paragon of honor. Not all lawyers saw it that way.

In 1992, Monroe Freedman, a legal ethics expert, published two articles in the national legal newspaper Legal Times calling for the legal profession to set aside Atticus Finch as a role model. Freedman argued that Atticus still worked within a system of institutionalized racism and sexism and should not be revered. Freedman's article sparked a flurry of responses from attorneys who entered the profession holding Atticus Finch as a hero, and the reason they became lawyers. Critics of Atticus such as Freedman maintain that Atticus Finch is morally ambiguous and does not use his legal skills to challenge the racist status quo in Maycomb.
Monroe H. Freedman, ""Atticus Finch, Esq., R.I.P.,"" 14 LEGAL TIMES 20 (1992); Monroe H. Freedman, ""Finch: The Lawyer Mythologized,"" 14 LEGAL TIMES 25 (1992) and Monroe Freedman, Atticus Finch – Right and Wrong, 45 Ala. L. Rev. 473 (1994).
While Atticus might have fulfilled the highest calling of a lawyer, Freedman saw the character as failing his calling as a human being in a racist society, and considered that to be a fatal flaw.

Yesterday was Race Day at the New York Times, where two op-eds argued the failure of a certain verdict in Florida was due to the one word unspoken throughout the trial, race.  In a "surprising" choice that suggests the power of an excellent public relations team, one op-ed was by Gloria Allred's daughter, Lisa Bloom, who, after explaining the basis for her assumption about what was inside George Zimmerman's head, illuminated the race issue with the insightful:

In contrast, Cardozo lawprof Ekow Yankah invokes the spirit of his fellow lawprof, Freedman, in writing:

The anger felt by so many African-Americans speaks to the simplest of truths: that race and law cannot be cleanly separated. We are tired of hearing that race is a conversation for another day. We are tired of pretending that “reasonable doubt” is not, in every sense of the word, colored.

Every step Mr. Martin took toward the end of his too-short life was defined by his race. I do not have to believe that Mr. Zimmerman is a hate-filled racist to recognize that he would probably not even have noticed Mr. Martin if he had been a casually dressed white teenager.
This conforms with my assumption as well. I find it impossible to believe that Zimmerman's perception of Martin as being "a punk" wasn't colored by race. Sure, there was also youth and attire, but it was part of the whole package. And to the extent that his skin color played a role in his perception that this was a kid who needed to be followed, who posed a threat of doing something wrong, it is racist.  Maybe not white hooded, cross-burning racism, but racist nonetheless.

This isn't a legal argument, however. Bloom and Yankah are both writing from the legal perspective, but what they are writing about isn't legal. It's sociological, a condemnation of a society that is still racist despite having a black president.  Anyone who thinks it's "problem solved" is delusional.

But Yankah contends that it is "the simplest of truths: that race and law cannot be cleanly separated."  Cleanly? No, it probably can't be cleanly separated, though it's similarly unclear that this constitutes "the simplest of truths." There is nothing simple about it.

It gives rise to a troubling question, that Yankah fails to adequately address and is way over Bloom's head.

What is reasonable to do, especially in the dark of night, is defined by preconceived social roles that paint young black men as potential criminals and predators. Black men, the narrative dictates, are dangerous, to be watched and put down at the first false move. This pain is one all black men know; putting away the tie you wear to the office means peeling off the assumption that you are owed equal respect. Mr. Martin’s hoodie struck the deepest chord because we know that daring to wear jeans and a hooded sweatshirt too often means that the police or other citizens are judged to be reasonable in fearing you.

We know this, yet every time a case like this offers a chance for the country to tackle the evil of racial discrimination in our criminal law, courts have deliberately silenced our ability to expose it. The Supreme Court has held that even if your race is what makes your actions suspicious to the police, their suspicions are reasonable so long as an officer can later construct a race-neutral narrative.

Being fully willing to accept that race factored into Zimmerman's perception, based on my own personal bias, the question that remains unanswered is what should the law have done about it?

Does the introduction of race by the prosecution into Zimmerman's perceptions alter the rule of self-defense? Does it render his subsequent conduct unlawful, even if it would have been lawful otherwise? Should there be two rules of law, one for interactions between people of different races where perceptions of the significance of conduct is assumed to be racially related, if not motivated? 

To point out that we still live in a society where race remains a pervasive unresolved issue is to state the obvious. To suggest that the criminal law should accommodate it is to present an intractable problem. Atticus Finch didn't hesitate to put his life on the line for his client, a black man accused of raping a white woman. But he didn't do enough because he didn't confront the racist society in defending Tom Robinson?

If the prosecution had been allowed, and inclined, to argue that George Zimmerman's conduct was racially motivated, and that his ultimate decision to shoot and kill Trayvon Martin was, at least in the tiniest of ways, based upon his race, would that have rendered his belief that he was about to suffer death or serious injury unreasonable?  If his head was being beaten against concrete by a white youth, as opposed to a black youth, would the harm have been different?

The argument that this scenario would never have commenced had Trayvon Martin been a white youth in a sports jacket and khakis is likely true. It's pure speculation no matter how much your head screams "yes, yes, yes," of course, but still. Yet how would the law have been any different at the point where a shot was fired? 

If we are to have a nation of laws to guide ourselves, how do we draw these vague, fuzzy lines where the law ceases to apply, where it's a free for all, where there is no longer a fixed right and wrong and everything becomes a matter of feelings, assumptions and personal perspective?  Yankah may be right that race and law cannot be cleanly separated in our collective consciousness, but then we cease to be a nation of laws when we ignore one for the other.

You might prefer that to happen here, but will you feel the same when you sit in the defendant's chair?  So what would Atticus Finch have done? He would have defended George Zimmerman based on the law, even if he failed to meet Monroe Freedman's expectation that he not be morally ambiguous. Atticus Finch would have still been the paragon of honor, even in the face of societal condemnation. That's what criminal defense lawyers do. That's what we are sworn to do.




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