Speaking after George Zimmerman’s acquittal, Bernie De la Rionda said “we have a great criminal justice system, it’s not perfect, but it’s the best in the world,” which was echoed by Mark O’Mara, Zimmerman’s lead counsel, who said, “He’s been acquitted by the most fair system in the universe”.
A lot of Americans probably believe that but it’s simply not true. By any objective standard, the US criminal justice system is one of the worst in the world. Don’t believe me? Look at the facts.
The US leads the world in prison population per capita, with 716 incarcerated per 100,000 of the population, accounting for 24% of the world’s prisoners. In fairness to Florida it only has 557 per 100,000 of the population, but that’s still significantly more than Russia or Iran. By way of contrast, England and Wales has 148 and Italy 108 prisoners per 100,000 population. No EU nation has anything like the same number of prisoners per capita as the USA or Florida. So unless you believe that the population of the US is more lawless than any other nation in the world, too many people are being locked up. Part of the reason is that 90% of convictions are the result of plea bargains.
The USA also leads the world in duration of prisoners’ sentences. For example, if George Zimmerman had have been convicted of second degree murder he would have been sentenced to 25 to life, and if he was convicted of the less included charge of manslaughter he was looking at 9.25 – 30 years, and a reasonable expectation that he would serve be serving over 25 years no matter what. Whereas if he was convicted of the comparable offence of involuntary manslaughter in England (there is no second degree murder), under current guidelines in cases of extreme provocation, the recommended sentence is 0-4 years. He could expect to receive a 3 year sentence, reduced to 2 years with remission, and eligible for early release after 18 months. In Italy, if convicted of the comparable offence omicidio preterintenzionale, despite technically having a tariff of 10 to 18 years, that is before relevant reductions for mitigating and extenuating circumstances. He could expect a sentence of just under 3 years but actually serve no time at all because prisoners with 3 years or less (4 years in the case of vulnerable prisoners) are automatically eligible to apply for non-custodial sentences, which will ordinarily be granted and certainly would in this case.
Furthermore, the US military, US Federal Government, and 32 US States, including Florida, still practice the death penalty. In fact, Florida is currently in joint second place with Oklahoma in the number of death sentences carried out this year and has more prisoners on death row than any other state. So what has capital punishment got to do with fairness?
Well nothing if all the people executed were guilty and received a fair trial but they don’t. The USA has carried out numerous wrongful executions. The only country in Europe that still practices the death penalty is Belarus, a pariah state, which is not allowed to be a member of the council of Europe, and is effectively made to sit on the naughty step by the rest of Europe. In fact, of the 40 nations out of 193 UN members states that still practice the death sentence, there are only two from the Americas: the USA and the Federation of Saint Christopher and Nevis, the rest are from Africa and Asia. And even amongst that bunch of the USA still comes fifth in the in the world in the number of death sentences carried out annually, behind such bastions of democracy as China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
I would also question the fairness of the jury system as a lawyer who represent clients in jurisdiction that use the jury system and those that don’t, I certainly wouldn’t opt for trial by jury. In the Zimmerman case six unqualified jurors were left to their own devices to adjudicate a murder trial, to their credit they returned with the right verdict, but lets not forget it took them 16 hours and 20 mins to get there and at one point three of them wanted to convict of manslaughter. Also as Alan Dershowitz has pointed out the US is the only nation that elects prosecutors and judges, which is hardly conducive to the defendant’s right to receive a fair trial.