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Around Town: Zimmerman case not at odds with justice's goals

July 26, 2013|By Anita S. Brenner

The most shameful part of the national debate over the acquittal of George Zimmerman is the disregard of the long-standing goal of the American criminal justice system.

The goal is to never convict an innocent person. That's why we have the presumption of innocence. That's why we have trial by a jury of the defendant's peers. Not the victim's peers, the defendant's peers. This is the reason for the burden of proof of beyond a reasonable doubt.

Obviously, our criminal justice system is not perfect. Obviously, race, education and pre-trial custody status are factors that affect outcome.

When I worked as a deputy public defender in Los Angeles County, all of my clients were poor, most were undereducated and many were people of color. The system seemed stacked against them, except for the jury instructions, which included the presumption of innocence, the prosecutor's burden of proving each element of the alleged crime beyond a reasonable doubt, and what we called the “log-jam instruction.”

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The log-jam instruction provides, “before you may rely on circumstantial evidence to find the defendant guilty, you must be convinced that the only reasonable conclusion supported by the circumstantial evidence is that the defendant is guilty. If you can draw two or more reasonable conclusions from the circumstantial evidence, and one of those reasonable conclusions points to innocence and another to guilt, you must accept the one that points to innocence.”

Or, as the late, great Johnny Cochran, put it, “if the glove don't fit, you must acquit.”

I became a lawyer because of the 1960 book, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The narrator, 6-year-old Scout Finch, tells the story of how her father, a lawyer named Atticus Finch, defended a black man accused of raping a white woman. Most of the town hated Atticus for providing a defense.

Over the years I've learned that nobody likes criminal defense attorneys, at least not until they or a loved one are accused of a crime.

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