The court decision Saturday that acquitted George Zimmerman of all charges has been characterized by some as a travesty or miscarriage of justice. That reflects a problem we often have in confusing the court of public opinion with a court of law.
There was much George Zimmerman did wrong that night, but the only illegal aspect hinged on whether Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin in self defence or not. And the evidence that appeared in court did not make that clear.
That is not just my opinion, but of several TV pundits with legal backgrounds who followed the case much more closely than I. As one of them put it, the prosecution never connected the dots, leaving room for reasonable doubt.
Of course, this would not have happened had Zimmerman not been an overzealous self-appointed neighborhood watchman and chase Martin. The 9-1-1 tape shows Zimmerman’s reacting to Martin’s running from him with: “These assholes always get away.” And then he chased Martin even though told “that is not necessary” by the 9-1-1 dispatcher. So, there is no doubt that Zimmerman is to blame for initiating the deadly turn of events, but that in itself is not a crime.
Defense attorney Mark O’ Mara has stated that the trial has been turned into a civil rights event, and I agree. But without that, this case would never have gone to court. That the police released Zimmerman who had just shot and killed someone by relying on the shooter’s account of events is hard to fathom. Also, hard to fathom is O’Mara’s contention that had the races been reversed and no civil rights issue raised the case would have easily been dismissed. Really? A black adult shoots a white teenager and the police are going to easily accept the self-defense explanation of the soul survivor, a black man? What country does this man live in?
But to call the “not guilty” verdict a travesty of justice is unfounded.
Zimmerman should not have pursued Travon Martin, and should not have had a gun while doing so, which set up what was to follow. But we can only imagine exactly what took place between the two men? Martin was likely afraid of this unknown stalker. Beyond the stalking did Zimmerman say or do something that heightened Martin’s fear? Or did Zimmerman say something that prompted Martin to flash back in anger. Was Martin fed up by previous incidents of being blamed for something because he was black? What happened in those last few minutes?
If that picture was clear, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. It might be argued that the real travesty of justice here was the initial investigation of the killing by police. As Columnist Eugene Robinson describes it:
“George Zimmerman’s acquittal was set in motion on Feb. 26, 2012, before Martin’s body was cold. When Sanford, Fla., police arrived on the scene, they encountered a grown man who acknowledged killing an unarmed 17-year-old boy. They did not arrest the man or test him for drug or alcohol use. They conducted a less-than-energetic search for forensic evidence. They hardly bothered to look for witnesses.”
O. K. but in the weeks following the death the call for justice by Martin’s parents meant that Zimmerman should go to trial. (By the way, they have acted with admiral restraint throughout this ordeal.) And he did go to trial, but now it is obvious that “justice” to many means Zimmerman should have been convicted of something, at least manslaughter. In other words, justice really means getting the verdict we feel someone deserves, not what a court decides.
While I do not think future federal prosecution on civil rights abuses will happen, Trayvon Martin might receive the justice many want in a civil trial, where the standards of proof are less, but because this has become a civil rights event and not just about Trayvon Martin, the justice often demanded is actually for all blacks, not just for him, and there is no definitive answer to that demand.
I don’t dispute the disparity raised in terms of equal treatment, but feel the death of Travon Martin has been overplayed by being turned into an overall indictment of our society. An attorney for the Martin family has suggested that the death of Trayvon Martin is akin to the deaths of Medgar Evers and Emit Till in the history of the civil rights movement.
That is overblown. Medgar Evers was a civil rights leader who risked his life daily in Mississippi before being assassinated by a white supremacist in 1963. He was a hero. Emit Till was a 14 year old boy visiting relatives in that state in 1955 where he was viciously murdered by the husband of a white woman he reportedly flirted with a few days earlier. He was an innocent.
Trayvon Martin shared the color of their skin but his was more a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and, while he might have been totally innocent, he also may have have contributed in some way to his death. We don’t know. It is tragic but this case is not just one more reflection of racism in America. It is also an indication of how far we have come in terms of racial equality since the days of Evers and Till. Racism remains, but it is not nearly as deep as it once was.
Medgar Evers and Emit Till were black men who were murdered for having the audacity to challenge white supremacist rule in the case of Evers and offend white supremacist sensibilities in the case of Emit Till at a time when blacks were clearly second citizens in most of America. While being black undoubtedly contributed to Trayvon Martin’s fate, he was not killed because he was black.
He died due to an unfortunate string of events. Hence the tragedy of it all.