Unlike George Zimmerman, Most Criminal Defendants Cannot Afford A Fair Trial

Last week many of you saw the criminal justice system at its best. George Zimmerman had top notch attorneys and expert witnesses representing him. The trial lasted from June 24 through July 12, which is a lot longer trial than most criminal trials last.

Brian Tannebaum, Eric Mayer, Elie Mystal, Gideon, Popehat, and Scott Greenfield wrote the best pieces I’ve read about the verdict, so I am going to refrain from commentary. Everything that needs to be said has been said by bloggers better qualified than myself to express their opinions.

I think there is an aspect still worth discussing – George Zimmerman was able to afford a top notch defense. Those who can afford a top notch defense fare far better at trial than those who cannot. That is how our justice system works, which I don’t think most Americans realize. The more money you have for your defense, the stronger it is going to be. Someone has to pay those expert witnesses, court reporters, and private investigators.

And here someone paid a significant amount of money to ensure Zimmerman had a full and fair trial.

As a result, it seems like every person in America now thinks that every criminal defendant gets weeks of trial, expert testimony, and a full and fair opportunity to have their case tried fully and fairly. Most of you have never heard of a “meet and greet” plea, where the public defender meets their client for the first time when striking a plea.

George Zimmerman was able to raise hundreds and thousands of dollars for his defense. Interestingly, Zimmerman’s website breaks down where all the money actually went:

BAIL BOND — $95,000

HOUSEHOLD/LIVING EXPENSES — $61,747.54

SECURITY — $56,100.00

LAW FIRM SUPPORT AND INFRASTRUCTURE — $40,647.64

CASE RELATED EXPENSES — $35,588.07

PAYPAL AND FUND MANAGEMENT FEES — $7,924.22

OTHER EXPENSES — $3,201.04

That comes out to $300,208.51 in costs alone, because apparently Zimmerman was not paying his lawyer. Zimmerman continued to raise money throughout the trial, and even raised $77k in one week alone. My guess is he raised at least $500k by this point.

But your average criminal defendant does not have $500k to throw at a case, or even $50k, sometimes not even $5k (or $500). And do you know what happens when someone can’t afford an expert or a transcript in law? They don’t get it. The more money a criminal defendant has to spend on a case, the better the chances are of winning. This applies in both criminal and civil law. A well financed defendant has a much better chance of winning at trial. They can afford the experts, the transcripts, and the legal team.

This is not to suggest that the public defenders don’t do a good job. That isn’t the case. Many of them are top notch trial attorneys and better than private counsel. But the PD doesn’t have the resources to devote $500k to every criminal defendant who walks through their door. They just don’t. Most public defenders barely get paid themselves enough as is.

So if you watched the Zimmerman trial and thought “At least that guy got a fair trial”, you’re right. But it isn’t the norm, because most defendants don’t have $500k to put into their defense. George Zimmerman did.

If Zimmerman didn’t have top notch experts and a crack legal team to aid him, would he have won at trial? If he were flat broke, would a plea have been more viable, even if he were not guilty…?

In my opinion, the racisim in the system is not because a white George Zimmerman shot a black Trayvon Martin. The true racisim is that most minorities who are accused of crimes cannot afford to to put on a good defense. Then they get steam rolled by the prosecution. If a defendant can’t afford to put on a solid defense, a plea is more likely regardless of guilt. It happens more than most people realize.

Perhaps Dave Chappelle’s “Law and Order” skit summed up the disparities in our justice system the best:

Law and order spoof from Leland Krane on Vimeo.

13 Responses to Unlike George Zimmerman, Most Criminal Defendants Cannot Afford A Fair Trial

  1. T Patrick Henry says:

    I must correct you, again, Jordan.
    1) I think you meant $50k and not $5ok
    2) Zimmerman, despite the name, is a Hispanic.
    3) It’s not racism to have the prosecution steam roll over defendants. That could happened to anyone.

    Suggestion to fix system; prosecution has a spending cap on trials.

    • It’s institutional racism as a whole. Blacks tend to be economically disadvantaged. As a result, most can’t afford full and fair trials. You have a system that incarcerates blacks at a much higher rate than whites. There are many reasons for that, but one reason is that poor people usually can’t afford a good defense, let alone a $500k defense.

      • T Patrick Henry says:

        There are poor white people too Jordan. It’s just that a lot more blacks live in areas destroyed by “progressive” policies that have killed the jobs and the only job left is to be a drug dealer.

        That’s why I suggested spending caps for the prosecution.

      • If there is any substantial institutional racism, it’s arguably against the white race in the form of affirmative action policies. Please name a single institutional policy that is unfavorable toward the black race. February is Black History Month in the U.S. Which month is White History Month? Newsflash: There isn’t a White History Month. Why? Institutional racism perhaps?

      • @Neil:

        Am I allowed to include slavery, segregation, voting rights, Rodney King and police brutality, the % of blacks incarcerated compared to whites, the war on drugs, disparate treatment of “street crimes” compared to “white collar crime”, the difference between state and federal prisons, and employment discrimination…?

      • Most of those policies no longer exist. And anyway, how is the war on drugs more unfavorable toward blacks than whites? The disparity between the treatment of street crimes and white collar crimes is more indicative of social class discrimination rather than that of race. Rodney King’s attackers were prosecuted twice, and eventually convicted. I know that I, as a white person, could never afford a $500,000 legal defense, or a $50,000 defense. Nor would I qualify for a public defender. I’m sure Zimmerman, who is Hispanic, wouldn’t have been able to afford it either had he not gotten public monetary support. I guess it’s advantageous to have a high profile case.

  2. that anonymous coward says:

    Justice is supposed to be blind, but money changes everything.

    The system is littered with people who weren’t able to afford good help. The fact there is a need for The Innocence Project, should spell out the sort of trouble we are in.

    And even people found innocent after it is clearly shown they were railroaded by bad defense, lack of funds, no flashy CSI computer model… they often face communities who refuse to accept the actual truth. (See ‘The Central Park 5’).
    Or they have to cut deals with the prosecutor who is unwilling to let the office ever appear tarnished for having screwed someone over. (See ‘West Memphis Three’.)

    Like many things it feels as if the law has been reduced to a game.
    If you have cash and can buy an all star line up, its probably going to go your way.
    If your not… its best to take whatever they offer, because they can always try to make it worse. They will keep adding things on and applying more pressure, so they can have another tick in the win column.

  3. […] Jordan Rushie (Philly Law Blog): “Unlike George Zimmerman, Most Criminal Defendants Cannot Afford A Fair Trial“ […]

  4. Jordan, you know that I have been a civil litigator in Florida for more than 20 years. And
    sadly Florida once again shows our country just how difficult the road to justice can be, regardless of race or color.

    http://huff.to/1cbJkbZ via @HuffPostCrime

  5. Tim R. says:

    It is really sad that it took that much money to defend Mr. Zimmerman in what the media turned into a showcase when it was a simple case of self-defense. Where is the media in all the cases where the roles are reversed?

  6. Very true. The state has all the resources at their disposal to obtain a conviction of a defendant. This leads to grave inequities in the criminal justice process for defendants who do not have the means to mount a proper defense.

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