CLIFF WEISS / PUBLISHER //
Let me start by saying that I have the utmost respect for Dr. Eugen Schoenfeld. Although I don’t always agree with the opinions in his columns, he’s earned the right to voice his views and I’m proud that he writes for the Atlanta Jewish Times.
Last week was one of those times that I disagreed with Dr. Schoenfeld’s comments. He was writing on the Zimmerman verdict in Florida. Admittedly, it must be the lawyer in me that reacts so strongly, but I feel the need to elaborate on much of what Dr. Schoenfeld said. I agree with the major premise that laws should be just, and that bad laws should be changed. However, I don’t agree that the laws on self defense and “stand your ground” are unjust.
Dr. Schoenfeld expressed that he “was shocked at the jury’s judgment that Zimmerman was genuinely fearful for his life and for this reason the killing of Martin must be considered an act of self defense.” This does not shock me at all. Trayvon Martin was on top of Zimmerman like an MMA cage fighter, raining down punch after punch to Zimmerman and repeatedly smashing Zimmerman’s head onto the concrete walk, causing his head to bleed. If that were me suffering such a beating, I would definitely be fearful for my life, and I truly believe that such fear would be reasonable.
Dr. Schoenfeld criticized the “stand your ground” law as being unjust. I understand that people may have different opinions about this law, and many other laws involving the use of guns, so I was not surprised at the criticism. What shocked me was his comparison of the gender/race/religion neutral “stand your ground” law to the racist/anti-semitic laws imposed specifically against Jews by the governing Nazi Party.
I did not live through the Holocaust like Eugene Schoenfeld did, so perhaps I do not have the proper standing to criticize. However, in my opinion, it diminishes the nature and memory of the Holocaust to compare the “stand your ground” law, which applies equally to everyone, to the inhumane laws that specifically stripped Jews of their dignity and property, and condemned the Jews to death camps.
Perhaps Dr. Schoenfeld was persuaded by the media that this was a trial about race. Black versus white. Maybe he felt sorry for the little Trayvon Martin depicted in all of the childhood photos, instead of the more accurate current photos of Martin. How come the media rarely showed pictures of the big, strong 17 year old Martin, but instead used outdated pictures of the sweet, little, innocent, 12 year old boy?
In his analysis, Dr. Schoenfeld confuses the term “aggressor” and uses it out of context to make his point. He claims that the act of Zimmerman following Martin was the real “aggressive” act. Even if we stretch our imagination to believe that following someone is “aggressive,” it would still not rise to the level of physical aggression to justify Martin beating Zimmerman to a bloody mess. The harmful physical aggression was all the fault of Martin. Martin initiated the violent attack.
Dr. Schoenfeld tries to justify his position by citing general propositions of Jewish law found in the Torah. Unfortunately, he misapplies these as well. He cites haboh l’hargechah (if one comes to kill you, you are justified to take defensive actions, including the killing of the aggressor first) and explains that “guilt rests on the person who initiates the intended illegal and aggressive act.” Although Zimmerman may have followed Martin, but following him, and even questioning him, was neither illegal nor aggressive. Martin was not physically attacked first by Zimmerman. Martin was the physical aggressor in escalating the conduct to violence. Once Martin attacks Zimmerman, Martin becomes guilty of initiating the illegal and aggressive act. Thus, self defense rightfully applies to Zimmerman, not Martin.
As far as Jewish law is concerned, it is important to understand that Jewish law would absolutely forbid Zimmerman from being found guilty of first degree murder and given the death penalty.
First, consider the view of 12th-century Jewish physician/legal scholar Maimonides, who stated that “it is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death.” Maimonides argued that executing a defendant on anything less than absolute certainty would lead to a slippery slope of decreasing burdens of proof. Moses Maimonides, The Commandments, Neg. Comm. 290, at 269-271 (Charles B. Chavel trans., 1967). The evidence of Zimmerman’s guilt was far from absolute certainty.
Second, under Jewish Law, two witnesses were required for a capital offense, and the only acceptable witnesses were limited to adult Jewish men who were known to keep the commandments, knew the written and oral law, and had legitimate professions. The witnesses had to see each other at the time of the killing, and both of them had to give a warning (hatra’ah) to the defendant that the sin the aggressor was about to commit was a capital offense. Also, the witnesses could not be related to each other or to the accused. These requirements were not met in the Zimmerman case, and there were not even two independent witnesses to the death in the Zimmerman case.
It is sad that a life was taken. We are all created by G-d in G-d’s image. It is a shame that the media, the lawyers who have a financial interest in a possible wrongful death lawsuit, and other groups with self-serving interests insist on making this tragedy a lawsuit about race. I agree that the number of young African-American men who are killed every day is shocking. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, between 1976 and 2011, there were 279,384 African-American murder victims, and 262,621 were murdered by other African-Americans. This equates to 94 percent of all murdered African-Americans being killed by African-Americans. Outrage should not be saved for the rare case in which an African-American is killed by someone of a different race. Something should be done about the other 94 percent of the murders.