7:34 PM EDT, July 15, 2013
The trial of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of unarmed Florida teen Trayvon Martin failed in every way. It failed to bring forth anything resembling objective truth about what happened the night Mr. Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, decided Mr. Martin looked suspicious and took the law into his hands. It failed to bring anything like closure to a nation that had been horrified by the senseless death of a young man who had done nothing wrong. And it failed most spectacularly to provide any measure of justice.
We do not dispute the jury's verdict. The six women who rendered it did so based on the evidence they were presented and the laws as they exist in Florida. What we do dispute is the notion stoked by Mr. Zimmerman's defense team in the hours after the verdict that he was blameless, even a victim — that the tides of racism were somehow conspiring against him in the aftermath of the shooting. It's hard to tell what has been more outrageous, the assertion that Mr. Zimmerman would never have been charged if he were black, or that Mr. Martin was armed with a sidewalk — the "weapon" on which Mr. Zimmerman claims the teen bashed his head during their confrontation.
The only thing that is clear now is the same thing that has been evident from the beginning: that no one in the Twin Lakes development in Sanford, Fla., was at risk on the night of Feb. 26, 2012, until Mr. Zimmerman spotted Trayvon Martin, decided based on his appearance that he was a "punk" who didn't belong and must be up to no good, and then disregarded the advice of a 911 operator and got out of his car to try to keep the teen from getting away. Regardless of who threw the first punch or who was getting the better of the struggle that ensued, it is indisputably true that Mr. Zimmerman overstepped his role, and that had he not done so, an innocent young man would still be alive.
We may never get Mr. Zimmerman's explanation for why he made the fateful decisions he did on that night. He provided inconsistent responses under police questioning, and he did not take the stand in his own defense — likely out of a desire to avoid cross-examination. But two undercurrents are clearly responsible for what happened that night and for the way the case has played out since: racial prejudice and Florida's reckless stand-your-ground self defense law.
Mr. Zimmerman's defense attorneys didn't explicitly invoke stand your ground in his defense; to do so would have undermined their story that Mr. Martin had pinned Mr. Zimmerman to the ground and was reaching for Mr. Zimmerman's weapon at the moment of the fatal shot. But Mr. Zimmerman was clearly aware of it before the confrontation. The existence of such a law, and of lax rules for the carrying of concealed weapons, are emboldening to the vigilante. The law also played no small part in the Sanford Police Department's shoddy investigation of the killing and the local prosecutor's initial decision not to pursue any charges. Such a law helps simple confrontations turn deadly. Imagine if Mr. Zimmerman had been the one who wound up dead that night; a strict reading of stand your ground would suggest that Mr. Martin wouldn't have been guilty of anything either. Such a law renders the notion of justice irrelevant.
Mr. Zimmerman's defenders note that he does not have a history of overt racism and that he used profanity and epithets but no racial slurs in describing Mr. Martin to a 911 operator. But something made him decide based on no evidence that Mr. Martin was a troublemaker who had to be apprehended so desperately that Mr. Zimmerman could not wait for police to arrive. Mr. Martin was a black teenager wearing a hooded sweatshirt. If he had been a white teen in khakis and a button-down, would Mr. Zimmerman have jumped to the conclusions he did? Almost certainly not. A black youth automatically registers as suspicious, and now, thanks to the Zimmerman defense team, he will automatically be considered armed and dangerous, even if he is holding nothing more menacing than a bag of Skittles.
The second way race factors into this case is in how it has been perceived by the public. A black youth is killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer, the police conduct a shoddy investigation, prosecutors put on a bumbling case, and an all-white jury in the South acquits. It is a story so familiar in its outlines that the particulars cannot overcome the sense for many justice is impossible when race is involved.
It is for that reason that the NAACP and others are pushing for the Department of Justice to bring a civil rights complaint against Mr. Zimmerman. Federal officials have an open investigation into the incident, but there is little chance that it will produce any results. The legal options for the Justice Department to pursue are simply too narrow, and the evidence is too thin.
The more productive avenue into which those who are outraged over this verdict may channel their energies is in the effort to roll back stand your ground laws, which are in effect in about half of the states. They are born of a pervasive (and generally unwarranted) fear of crime and the false conviction that a universally armed society will make us all safer. That was clearly not true in this case. The law made Mr. Zimmerman judge, jury and executioner, and it extracted from an innocent young man the ultimate price.
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