There is no justice for George Floyd. The cries for such a result raise a straw man. Floyd is dead, and shouldn’t be dead. There is no remedy for that, and our system promises none. In the criminal justice system, the role of what would be the plaintiff in a civil proceeding is taken by the State, or “the People.” Justice is sought by society, to validate the system of the rule of law, and to ensure the safety and integrity of society and civilization.
Whether or not the officers responsible for George Floyd’s death—and absent the revelation of some miraculous intervening cause that nobody suspected, like Floyd being bitten by an escaped Black Mamba while the police officer was kneeling on his neck, there is no reasonable argument that the officers were not responsible for his death—are convicted and punished to anyone’s satisfaction is not the measure of “justice” in this case. The measure of justice is whether due process is followed, whether the officers are fairly tried and competently defended, whether their prosecution obeys the rules of evidence and follows the law in all other respects, whether a competent and fairly vetted jury evaluates the evidence presented and delivers a verdict consistent with that evidence, following a trial overseen by an impartial judge, who then declares a fair punishment in light of the verdict. That is all our system can achieve. Whether all citizens, or any citizens at all, like or approve of the final outcome is irrelevant, and has nothing whatsoever to do with “justice for George Floyd.” The system seeks justice in a broader sense.
I haven’t heard the recordings, but I assume that “No justice, No peace” is the mindless chant of choice as it has been in so many other race-related protests. The slogan is per se unethical: it’s a vigilante threat, and should be accorded exactly the respect it deserves: none. “Punish who we want punished, as quickly as possible or else” is the message sent by that chant, and society’s answer to it must be a resounding “No.” The media’s romanticizing and supporting that sentiment is irresponsible and dangerous. The justice system will proceed as the law requires, and experience shows that haste motivated by activist threats and journalists’ incitement leads to travesties of justice, often to the benefit of the guilty.
The rioters are, in essence, taking the position of lynch mobs in the Old West of myth and legend. (I have no idea how often citizens actually hanged accused criminals before trials; I know it happened.) In the typical movie scenario, a courageous sheriff cocks his rifle or shotgun and tells the mob that he will use deadly force to ensure that the man in his custody gets a fair hearing before a judge and jury. That was the correct response then; it is the correct response now. Justice requires it.
Commenter zoebrain raised the question of whether a fair trial is possible after the threat of continued violence and rioting has been made palpable. “As for successful prosecution, good luck finding an untainted jury. A fair trial may be impossible. If I were a juror, I’d fear for my life should I not convict on all counts. Now while that wouldn’t affect my own vote, it would be unreasonable for me to expect any of the other jurors to feel the same. I’d never perjure myself to gain a plea deal taking a death sentence for me down to a week’s probation. Again, I don’t expect that attitude to be viewed by others as anything other than insanity,” she writes.
The idea behind such rioting is in part to eliminate the option of a fair trial. This is especially true thanks to the bizarre anomaly of our system not viewing it as double jeopardy when the same defendant is tried for a civil rights violation on the same facts after being acquitted of murder charges, as in the Rodney King trials. The officers involved in King’s beating were going to be punished, it was decided, because the alternative was destructive civil unrest. Yet we have seen many cases where the shadow of riots did not prevent a fair trial, and where courageous jurors refused to capitulate to the implied threats on their lives.
The officers in the Freddie Gray case were acquitted, because there was no evidence. They shouldn’t have been charged. George Zimmerman was acquitted, and correctly so. In Ferguson, despite a wave of media disinformation aimed at promoting his guilt, Office Darren Wilson wasn’t charged with a crime by a citizen grand jury. There are counter examples, to be sure; one may be the O.J. Simpson trial. Still, the American jury system had generated plenty of ethics heroes.
One thing we can conclude here and now. Justice is not served by allowing public emotionalism and media sensationalism to drive the criminal justice process. Efforts to encourage that distortion should be condemned, without sympathy or exception.