SANFORD -- It was a startling moment at George Zimmerman's murder trial: Defense attorney Don West suggested that Trayvon Martin -- not the defendant -- was guilty of racial bias the night the two met on a rainy Sanford sidewalk and Zimmerman shot the black teenager dead.
Trayvon had described Zimmerman as a "creepy-ass cracker" to his friend Rachel Jeantel, who was on the phone with him in the moments before the shooting, she testified.
"Trayvon Martin referred to white people as crackers, correct?" West asked the 19-year-old woman.
"I don't recall, sir," she said. But moments earlier she had confirmed that he had.
In a case that became a national civil-rights cause celebre — drawing thousands of protesters, the Rev. Al Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson to Sanford — there have been surprisingly few direct references to race or racism at Zimmerman's trial.
The issue of race, though, is never far from the surface.
Thursday's confrontation between West and Jeantel was one example.
George Ciccariello-Maher, a professor of history and politics at Drexel University in Philadelphia, said from Trayvon's choice of words on the phone that night, it appeared that "he perceived intuitively" that Zimmerman's following him was a" racial pursuit."
Trayvon didn't inject race into what happened that night, Ciccariello-Maher argued. He used the phrase "cracker" pejoratively to describe someone already acting with racial motives.
Injecting race is 'wrong'
Trayvon's death became the top news story in the country in March 2012 when more than a million people signed a petition, outraged that Zimmerman — who many believed is white but who is a light-skinned Hispanic — had shot an unarmed black 17-year-old in a gated community and not been arrested.
After court Thursday — when race surfaced in testimony — Daryl Parks, an attorney for Trayvon's parents, stood alongside them in a news conference to say: "To this family, race is not a part of this process. Anybody who tries to inject it is wrong."
And yet, Trayvon's parents traveled to Washington, D.C., where the Congressional Black Caucus described the killing as one of "racial bias."
There were rallies in New York, Los Angeles, London, Chicago, Atlanta, Denver, Detroit, Toronto, Miami and elsewhere.
Thousands thronged to Sanford for rallies led by the Jackson and Sharpton, who warned that without an arrest, Sanford was "risking going down as the Birmingham and Selma of the 21st century."
U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown helped persuade the U.S. Department of Justice to launch an investigation to determine whether Zimmerman had violated Trayvon's civil rights. The agency has not announced its conclusions.
Skin color a factor?
The defense has been saying all along that Trayvon's skin color was not a factor in the confrontation and shooting. At the close of testimony Friday, Shawn Vincent, spokesman for Zimmerman's attorneys, said about the case: "We don't think it's about race."
Yet race has surfaced in court.
It became an issue Wednesday when prosecutors persuaded Circuit Judge Debra S. Nelson to allow them to play for jurors five recorded phone calls Zimmerman, a Neighborhood Watch volunteer, had made to police in the months leading up to the Feb. 26, 2012, shooting.
In four of those calls, he was reporting suspicious persons in his neighborhood. Each time, the person was black.
Assistant State Attorney Richard Mantei had argued that the tapes would help jurors understand Zimmerman's motive the night of the shooting: Zimmerman was tired of suspicious people in his neighborhood and believed "these assholes, they always get away," words he used with a dispatcher the night he called to report Trayvon.
During opening statements, the judge allowed Assistant State Attorney John Guy to accuse Zimmerman of profiling — but not to say "racial profiling."
The most overt reference to race came Thursday from Jeantel. When asked, she told West she believed the killing was racial because of the way Trayvon described Zimmerman, as a "creepy-ass cracker." She did not explain.
Even in choosing the jury, race was a factor. The panel is all women, five white and one Hispanic. If not for defense challenges, two of the three white alternates would be black.
"That is not a jury that will be able to deliver a fair verdict," Ciccariello-Maher said.
Defense attorney Mark O'Mara made no apology for using his challenges to excuse two black women from the jury. He had played by the rules, he said.
Parks, one of the attorneys for Trayvon's family, said he was not worried that the jury has five white members and one Hispanic. The case, he has often said, is about justice for Trayvon.
Regarding race, Parks said, "America doesn't want to talk about that."
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