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The flaws of the U.S. justice system: the Ahmaud Arbery trial

In the land of the free, is justice truly being served? 

Last Wednesday, three Georgia white men were found guilty of murdering Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, after suspecting him of committing the break-ins in their neighborhood in South Georgia. The jury concludes that the three men had no legal right to chase him down based on pure speculation as Arbery was not an imminent threat. Currently, the defendants will face life sentences in prison in accordance with state law.    

Finally, the people could celebrate justice being served, allowing closure for the Arbery family and the millions of minorities within the United States. But the trials of Arbery shed light on another frustrating issue other than the racial injustice that precedes the United States: an ineffective justice system. 

For starters, the case has been ongoing since the April murder conviction of Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis police officer that was recorded kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, another unarmed Black man, when making an arrest. In both cases, it was a cause for national outrage and protests against authorities, with clear video footage as the cherry on top. But, it would be naive to expect the same treatment to be applied to similar occurrences like Arbery’s and Floyd’s, much less considering the amount of time it took for the justice system to deliver a verdict. According to a Pew Research Center analysis of data collected by the federal judiciary, nearly 80,000 people were defendants in federal criminal cases in 2018, but only 2 percent went on to trial. The majority took a plea bargain. But why?

As stated by University of North Carolina law professor Carissa Byrne Hessick in her book Punishment without Trial, it is nearly impossible to get acquitted. Resources are limited from the prosecutors aiming to win the case by piling charges, while the overworked public defenders are pressured to persuade the defendant to plea. The defendants that do try to exercise their sixth amendment rights are met with a less than 1 percent chance to go free. As a result, some cases never see the light of day.

In fact, the trials of Arbery and Floyd are barely examples of U.S. court proceedings. Both had to have damning video evidence that sparked national outrage to have investigators and judges on the case. The care and attention received without public involvement are even less likely when comparing it to another popular case: the Kenosha shootings.   

During a protest against police brutality, 17-year-old Rittenhouse shot three men, killing two and wounding the third. However, the jury cleared the teen of five first-degree counts, arguing it was an act of self-defense, with thousands contributing to the claim, including American actor Rick Schroder. In a case like this, it just goes to show the incompetencies of the justice system as, without a doubt, very few would receive the Rittenhouse treatment, much less when racial bias is added into the mix.

In a 2017 Marshall Project, researchers examined 400,000 homicides committed by civilians in 1980 and 2014 within the United States.  In about 17 percent of cases when a Black man was killed by a non-Hispanic white man, the killing was categorized as “justifiable,” a term that implies the civilian was using self-defense. This statistically significant disparity implies a problem between judgments as the police classify fewer than 2 percent of overall homicides committed by civilians as “justifiable.”  

In fact, much of police involvement within these proceedings remains questionable. 

Since Chauvin’s case, the topic of police brutality has resurfaced, with many identifying the causes of racial profiling and potential solutions that include reforming law-enforcement tactics to defunding entire police departments. Lesser drastic tactics also involve implementing better training or administering body cameras to officers. However, according to researchers, data remains limited.

Founding director of the Justice Collaboratory at Yale Law School Tracy Meares states, “Policing, in large part for historical reasons, has proceeded in kind of a science-free zone.”

This “science-free zone” makes it harder to craft policies. However, it is apparent that change needs to be made. From a global pandemic to a widespread movement, a lot has changed since the summer of 2020. However, social justice still remains stagnant under the law. Long enough has fear been rampant for many minorities and those suffering from injustices under an imperfect system.    

In a wider social context, justice has not been served for Arbery. A lack of consideration in court law and jury reflects that. As soon as the next big headline comes along, you can bet that the U.S. court will take the case more seriously under the watchful eyes of the public. But, is it truly a maintainable system if it needs to be checked by not just the people in service, but those that rely on it? Who knows?

But one thing is for certain: a change needs to be made. 

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