On July 18, 2016, the highest ranking Baltimore police officer was found not guilty of all charges in the death of Freddie Gray in April last year. The judge said, “This court does not find that the state has proven that the defendant was aware that the failure to seatbelt created a risk of death or serious physical injury to Mr. Gray under the facts presented.” In an earlier trial of another officer involved in the death of Gray, the same judge said, “There has been no credible evidence presented at this trial that the defendant intended for any crime to happen.”
In other words, there is no intent to kill, therefore, he is not guilty.
But the fact that drives many to outrage is that Freddie Gray died – a life was lost and no one is guilty of anything. Those of us who feel this way are more focused on the outcome of this event. To the U.S. court system, that outcome is almost secondary to having to prove the intention of the defendant.
Intent vs. outcome is one of the most common conflicts in the debate on race relations in the United States. The U.S. is a nation obsessed with intent. When congress held a hearing on Former Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton’s misuse of emails, question after question was about: Did she intend to use her private email server knowing that it was illegal; did she intend to lie about this and that? Many of my outcome-oriented friends were puzzled by all this because there were no proven harm coming from her mistake and they said, “What is the big deal here?!”
In the case of George Zimmerman who shot Trayvon Martin in 2012, in which the “stand your ground” law in Florida was used to his defense resulting in his acquittal, it took the focus on intent even further. The law basically says that if I believe that you intend to hurt me, I have the right to use deadly force to hurt you back. The problem with this intent-orientation is that there is no way to prove intent (what the person was thinking) when the person is dead. To make things worse for the outcome-oriented people, the Zimmerman’s lawyer declared that he never did anything wrong because the jury could not prove that he intentionally committed an act or acts that caused the death of Trayvon Martin. For those of us focusing on outcome, the fact is that Zimmerman shot Martin and nothing is being done to hold anyone accountable.
So, what do we do about this “intent vs. outcome” difference if we invite people to enter into constructive dialogue on race relations?
- The first step is to acknowledge that the intent and outcome orientations exist.
- The second step is to recognize my own orientation: Am I more intent or outcome orientated in my approach to race issues?
- The third step is to discover the strengths and weaknesses of my own orientation.
- The fourth step is to be curious about the other’s orientation and genuinely want to understand it.
If we engage each other in constructive dialogue, achieving understanding of our intent and outcome orientations, we might be able to move beyond this recurring either-or argument to both-and healing processes. For the intent-oriented, we might consider why our intention did not match the outcome. For example, even though I did not intend to cause harm but someone did get hurt because of my actions; how can I take responsibility to address this? For the outcome-oriented, instead of dismissing the other’s intention, we might need to acknowledge that the other’s intention may be genuine, so that we can continue the dialogue in which we will have opportunities to share the impact of what happened.
In the case of a police shooting, a healing process may look like this: independent of what the court decides in the trial (there will be many of these trials in the coming year), bring together the policemen and the victim’s family for a truth event in which we listen to the experiences and perspectives of the victim’s family and the policemen involved in the shooting. In the dialogue, if appropriate, acknowledge that the person is dead and it causes great pain for his/her family, AND also acknowledge that there is no intent to hurt if that is the case. Having heard and gained more understanding of each other’s perspectives, consider what healing steps we might take in order for us to be “well” again.
Reflection Questions for Proper 15 (Year C)
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