I have a pet peeve in the law -- I don't like anytime the words "send a message" are used to describe a legal case, whether it be civil or criminal. I also cringe at the companion message: "My friend's (insert familial relationship here) had this happen in their legal case, so my case should be the same."
Yes, the law is generally and uniformly applied, but each case is as individual as fingerprints or DNA. The only message sent by your fingerprint's whorls, loops and arches is that you are you. The only message sent by a particular legal case is the end result for the participants. There is no guarantee that the results in one case can be replicated with a different set of facts or different laws.
The recent George Zimmerman trial is a case in point. A quick Google search gave me numerous headlines of news articles of this ilk: "The Zimmerman Verdict's Message." There is only one message from the Zimmerman trial: The state of Florida failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt (as per the Constitution) that Zimmerman was guilty under Florida law of second-degree murder or manslaughter. This is the law the way it is intended to work, irrespective of the frothings of the masses and talking heads.
The idea that the law can send a message stems from a general misconception about how the law works. Legal cases are bifurcated events. (Bifurcate is a 50-cent lawyer word that simply means divided into two, so in humanspeak: court cases that decide two things.)
The first thing is, what is the applicable law? The second thing is, what are the facts? While the law in general relies on precedents and prior decision to create a predictable system, a single case is merely the application of that law and those decisions to specific facts.
After the Legislature gets through with the laws, judges become the final decision makers in the courtroom as to what the law means. Attorneys love judges who make consistent rulings on laws, and a judge's ruling in one case certainly can be an excellent indication of how a judge will rule in another case. But the judge's ruling is not a political or social message; it is simply an indication of how he or she views the written law -- think of it as "sending an interpretation."
Once the law has been established, the jury decides what the facts are and how they fit in with the law as it is explained to them. Judge = law. Jury = facts. This is why a jury can't "send a message" other than how the law applies to certain facts. In cases without juries, the judge also makes the factual findings, taking on both roles. Court decisions are broken into two parts: Findings of Facts (what happened) and Conclusions of Law (what the law dictates based on those facts). A lawyer's education indoctrinates us into this split thinking. Our entire existence as an attorney species is taking experience and knowledge and providing a client guidance through this divided legal thicket.
Some facts matter more to the law than others, and often, the facts the public or the participants care about don't matter at all. I was in court last week and watched a couple fighting it out in a divorce case. One of the participants didn't have an attorney, and most of the facts that the couple were arguing about had no relevance to the decision on child support and alimony. The judge didn't care that both sides were disgusted with each other or about the DUIs or whether the mother-in-law was a liar or 80 percent of the facts they were talking about.
The only relevant facts were who had paid alimony and support and when. Two hours of testimony with 10 minutes of relevance, and the only message I got was, what a colossal waste of time.
So my message? If you need legal help, don't look for signs in other cases or how your cousin Gertrude's case 20 years ago turned out. Talk to qualified legal counsel and find out how your particular facts fit with the law.
The law doesn't send messages; that is left to newspaper columns.
E. Kent Winward is an Ogden attorney. He can be reached at 801-392-8200 or email@example.com.