Colorblind justice?

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WASHINGTON -- The acquittal of armed community watchdog George Zimmerman, a white man charged with second-degree murder in his shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teen-age boy, raises more questions than answers about our system of justice.

Their encounter was no High Noon or day at the O.K. Corral. They did not know each other and Zimmerman had been following the hoodie-clad Martin, disregarding the counsel of police with whom he was in phone contact to discontinue his surveillance.

When the jury of six women -- five white and one Hispanic -- brought in the not-guilty verdict on the murder charge, was Zimmerman really acquitted by a jury of his peers? One can only ask whether a jury so constituted, without a black man, was a fair representation of the America in which the crime occurred. A jury without a single male, white or black, also seemed an anomaly for such a high-profile and closely scrutinized case.

Some might argue that, in the state of racial contention and division in the country, it would have been impossible to find a black juror who would vote to free Zimmerman. Such an attitude would in itself be the epitome of racial profiling. How much more credible would the acquittal of the white defendant have been under such a circumstance.

The outcome was an endorsement of the concept of stand-your-ground laws, amid confusion over which principal was the attacker and which the attacked. In retrospect, a charge of manslaughter, which was authorized by the judge late in the trial, might have been more realistic and publicly accepted, but the jury rejected it, too, in its verdict.

For all the chatter from some that race was not at the heart of the matter, it was intentionally or inadvertently injected to characterize Zimmerman's motivation, or to generate sympathy for Martin.

President Obama neutrally declared the shooting of Martin "a tragedy ... not just for his family, or for anyone in any one community, but for America." But he also said: "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon." Did that projection make any contribution to public understanding and empathy for any target victim of gun violence, black or white?

The nation's s first African American president sought to segue from the Zimmerman-Martin encounter to another plea for gun control. "We should ask ourselves if we're doing all we can to stem the tide of violence that claims too many lives across the country on a daily basis," he said.

"We should ask ourselves as individuals and as a society, how we can prevent future tragedies like his. As citizens that's a job for all of us." And then he concluded: "That's the way to honor Trayvon Martin." Honor him? How can any honor for the dead youth accrue from any such mindless display of street violence?

Meanwhile, aside from using the episode to refer to his administration's failed effort to achieve tougher gun-control legislation, the president has pretty much left the continuing heavy lifting to Joe Biden. The vice president has become chief administration mourner and empathizer, as in his participation at the memorial for the Hot Shot firefighters who died in Arizona.

Not surprisingly, leaders of the black community, self-styled or otherwise, such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson have called for public protest in response to Zimmerman's acquittal. They and others have urged the Justice Department to continue an investigation into possible violations of Martin's civil rights in the row that cost him his life. Such action is likely only to prolong the widespread ill will among black Americans, and supportive whites as well, resulting from the jury's verdict. It's even been reported Zimmerman can claim return of the weapon he used in Martin's death.

At a minimum, the concept adopted in some Southern states like Florida in endorsing stand-your-ground defenses against alleged personal aggression needs review in light of this sordid case. We're supposedly no longer in the Wild West, nor in the Old South, for that matter.

(Jules Witcover's latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.)

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Andy Green, the opinion editor, has taken the "know a little bit about everything" approach in his time at The Sun. He was the city/state editor before coming to the editorial board, and prior to that he covered the State House and Baltimore County government.

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