I've been blessed to have spent a lot of time at the HLN and CNN studios during the course of the trial of George Zimmerman, who was just acquitted of murder in the death of Trayvon Martin. In fact, I had a surreal experience, being on the set of the HLN show "After Dark" on Saturday night when the verdict came in.
Putting aside how unusual it is to be taking a verdict on a Saturday night -- which only happens when jurors are sequestered and deliberating through the weekend -- this one was different. The cast of the show and the studio jurors were all readying themselves for the usual production. I was working on my "combinoky" for the evening, something that has become my signature contribution to the show (a combinoky is the combination of two words to make what is often a ridiculous or fanciful new word).
Suddenly, everything changed in a moment; we got word that the jury had reached a verdict, and that we were going live ahead of schedule to capture it.
Now, those who know me know that my "filter" is sometimes broken, that I'm prone to saying things that are candid and frequently irreverent. (In fact, this was going to be just such a night. The panel was asked to come up with one word to describe the all-female jury that was deliberating the case. My word for that evening was going to be "Menstrually-Synchronious," something that I'm sure looked much funnier in my head than it would have been on live television. But Google it! It's an actual thing where women living in close proximity start to have their cycles align!)
When it was announced that the jurors had reached a verdict, our "After Dark" studio jury let out a brief cheer. The court of public opinion was very critical of Zimmerman, and usually a verdict in a criminal case means that the defendant is about to be convicted of something. Full-blown acquittals, where all jurors unanimously agree that the prosecution has failed to meet its burden, are a relatively infrequent occurrence.
Usually the defense is playing for a hung jury; any trial that ends with something other than a conviction is a win for the defense. And in the Zimmerman trial especially, with strong issues concerning race surfacing, my impression was that getting people to be open-minded about who was legally responsible for Martin's death was as simple as getting someone to be open-minded about changing their religion.
When the verdict was read, and it was declared that Zimmerman was not guilty of any crime, stunned silence was the order of the day. At least for a brief moment. Then the press conferences began.
Regardless of what you think about the righteousness of the verdict, there is one thought that burns brightly in my mind: Thank God for cameras in the courtroom! In my view, those cameras are absolutely essential for people to have any level of confidence in the integrity of the justice system, and that confidence is truly priceless.
If we had no cameras and only had some version of the headline that read "Unarmed black teenager with Skittles and iced tea killed; killer walks free!" we would have an entirely different view about our justice system and those who participate in it. Thank God we were able to see the case unfold through our own eyes; the horrible comedic timing of Don West and his infamous "knock-knock" joke; the testimony (and cross-examination and sometimes meltdown) of each of the witnesses; the closing arguments that ranged from frenetic (Bernie de la Rionda) to human Ambien (Mark O'Mara) to the courtroom's own Don Draper in John Guy. (Or is it "Fifty Shades of Guy"?)
Regardless of whether the side we were hoping would prevail did, we all have a deeper level of understanding that only happened because the courtroom and all its activities were open for all to see. That is absolutely essential, and I'm proud to have been part of that process. I'm sure my Twitter followers were somewhat frustrated with me when they asked me repeatedly "What do you think the result should be?" and got legal analysis instead.
My role is never to advocate for a particular outcome; it is always to interpret the often convoluted legalese of a courtroom into plain words that people can actually understand. (Unlike the jury instructions, which not even lawyers understand, yet we ask people with no legal training to just figure it out. But that's another post for another day.)
My one word for "After Dark" quickly changed. There was nothing to joke about in that moment. Seventeen-year-old Martin was gone too soon. The legal system had rendered its judgment about Zimmerman. My word that night was "justice."
For some, that word came wrapped in air quotes. For others, it represented the correctness of the verdict. For me, it meant neither. For me, the word "justice" in the context of the Zimmerman trial was simply an acknowledgement that this verdict was the byproduct of our justice system, a system only as good as the people involved, a system that is far from perfect but the best one in the world, a system that I'm proud to be a part of.
And because of those cameras in the courtroom, you were part of it too.