"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
[UPDATE -- July 15, 11:40 a.m.: A sentence in the second paragraph has been added to more accurately describe Florida self-defense law.]
I have a distinct memory of being confused by the Rodney King verdict. I was 6 in April of 1992, when three of the four police officers charged with excessive force for the savage beating of King were acquitted by a nearly all-white jury. This was confusing to me because I had seen the video, as everyone had. They did it. That didn’t seem to be in doubt. My mother, I think, tried her best to explain the difference between “not guilty” and “innocent” in the American criminal justice system, which can be a hard concept for a child to grasp.
I am a bit older now and able to understand that there is often a difference between justice and “the correct legal result.” (Not that those cops were properly acquitted, but still.) I’m not a lawyer or a legal expert, but this weekend I read numerous pieces arguing that Zimmerman’s acquittal was in line with Florida law, and it is a persuasive argument. The burden of proof was on the state to prove that Zimmerman didn’t reasonably believe that his life was in imminent danger. The fact that Zimmerman was, in a sense, responsible for the altercation does not mean that he “initially provok[ed]” the conflict, according to Florida law. The fact that he was armed and Trayvon Martin wasn’t is likewise immaterial to Florida’s self-defense law, which is in line with much of the rest of the country’s self-defense laws.
For George Zimmerman, then, the system worked. He got just about the fairest trial America has to offer, a shining example of our commitment to upholding the law even when the result isn’t ideal. Sure, some would say the media was prejudicial and the state overzealous in its prosecution, but when a trial ends with an acquittal the defendant can’t complain too much.
If this is the way the system is supposed to work, it is also the way it almost never works. Zimmerman got to pick his own qualified attorney — he went with the president of the Seminole County Bar Association, who worked the case pro bono — instead of having an overworked, underpaid and quite possibly completely incompetent court-appointed attorney argue on his behalf. Zimmerman received a jury trial. Trial by a jury of one’s peers may be specified by the Constitution as a fundamental right but jury trials are also expensive and time-consuming. It’s much easier to have prosecutors simply dictate sentences through the plea bargaining process, which is why more than 90 percent of felony cases in America are now settled that way.
And Zimmerman was also lucky enough to have killed a young black teenager in a “Stand Your Ground” state. While “Stand Your Ground” wasn’t invoked in the trial, it didn’t have to be: States with those laws on their books are simply more favorable environments for white defendants accused of killing black people.
Whites who kill blacks in Stand Your Ground states are far more likely to be found justified in their killings. In non-Stand Your Ground states, whites are 250 percent more likely to be found justified in killing a black person than a white person who kills another white person; in Stand Your Ground states, that number jumps to 354 percent.
Zimmerman’s attorney this weekend said that if his client were black, he wouldn’t have been charged — a claim so strange, so wildly at odds with observable reality, that even Michael Steele mocked it. It’s actually pretty easy to imagine how this would’ve worked out.
If George Zimmerman were black, he wouldn’t have become famous. (Unless, possibly, Trayvon Martin had been white.) He would’ve been arrested right away and, in the most likely scenario, his court-appointed attorney would’ve strongly advised him to accept whatever the prosecution’s plea deal ended up being. If this Zimmerman had ended up going to a jury, as Marissa Alexander did (after rejecting a plea deal), he would’ve probably received 25 years to life in prison, thanks to Florida’s mandatory minimum laws, another fine example of how our criminal justice system works for most, but apparently not all.
Instead, Zimmerman got the cop special. A cop accused of murder, rape or vicious assault always gets the strongest possible presumption of innocence, the strictest interpretation of “reasonable doubt” and, obviously, great lawyers. Jurors take their jobs very seriously and demand inarguable proof. This is the criminal justice system as it exists for the select few. Zimmerman was lucky enough to become one of those few, thanks to his victim, and thanks to his sudden notoriety, which brought him a highly competent attorney who wished to take on a high-profile case and led to the donations necessary to fund a high-profile case.
If the law truly says George Zimmerman shouldn’t be in jail, it is a selectively applied law. America will be a more just place when everyone’s criminal trials resemble George Zimmerman’s. (Though perhaps without the involvement of Piers Morgan.) For now, though, this was an acquittal only certain people would’ve been able to afford.
Update 2: I was unnecessarily harsh on public defenders in this post, and a few have written to (politely) push back. For the record, I think public defenders are, on the the whole, great people doing some of the most important work in the country. Many of them are also among the best attorneys in the country. I’ve also been convinced that private attorneys are just as likely as court-appointed ones to recommend that clients accept plea deals.
It’s also the case that public defenders frequently have caseloads that far exceed the recommended limits, and their budgets are far less than the budgets of prosecutors. 90 percent of their clients plead guilty. This is an indictment of the American criminal justice system, not of defenders themselves. The important fact in Zimmerman’s case was having the resources to mount the defense, not merely the ability to choose a private attorney to his liking.
Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @pareeneMore Alex Pareene.
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)
Alex Pareene surveys the burgeoning and bloated world of political news and opinion and explains the day's most essential story in Opening Shot, posted by 8:30 a.m. each weekday. Bookmark this page; follow @pareene on Twitter.