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Was justice served?                                                                                     Print this essay

Posted at: Jul/24/2013 : Posted by: mel

Related Category: Society, The Law, Watching America,

A trial recently concluded in Sanford Florida that has garnered national attention and a proportional level of controversy. George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer was charged with murder and manslaughter in the death of Trayvon Martin. After due deliberations, a jury of six women found George Zimmerman not guilty on all charges. Many people are using this trial and its verdict as a touch stone to denounce from their pulpits and microphones this verdict as a failing of the American judicial system. Me, I’m not so sure.

As initially reported, it would appear that an innocent young unarmed African-American was killed at the hands of an armed wannabe police officer patrolling the streets of his community at night. The acquittal of George Zimmerman of murder and manslaughter charges in the death of Trayvon Martin left many Americans holding two thoughts that at first seem contradictory. On the one hand, considering Florida’s permissive laws on self-defense and gun use, topped by the prosecution’s apparent flawed performance, the jury probably came to a reasonable conclusion. And yet, an innocent and unarmed young man is dead and the person who pulled the trigger should somehow be held responsible.

But these thoughts aren’t necessarily contradictory. A verdict in a criminal trial — especially one bound up with race and wound up by a voracious, non-stop media machine does not necessarily render moral judgment and create any kind of civic accountability. Did the law fail us, or was the outcome just? In the midst of all this confusion and outrage, what can an ordinary citizen get from all of this?

Trying to summarize a trial of more than a week in a single paragraph is not easy and challenges me to not pick and choose what I share. All of us bring our own bias to every situation so being as unbiased here as possible is a personal challenge. Ultimately, the trial was about the evidence. On that rainy night in Sanford Florida, George Zimmerman called the non-emergency police operator to report a suspicious person in the neighborhood. Mr. Zimmerman was asked by the operator about the address. Mr. Zimmerman’s defense claimed he got out of his vehicle in response to the operator query to better look at the local street addresses. After realizing what had happened, the operator asked Zimmerman if he were following Martin, saying “We don’t need you to do that.” Mr. Zimmerman’s defense team also claimed he got out of his vehicle to keep better track of the suspicious person until police arrived. Forensic evidence showed that Mr. Zimmerman had injuries to the back of his head and to his face; these would be consistent with his story that he was being beat upon and his head was being pounded against the concrete sidewalk. The autopsy of Trayvon Martin showed injuries to his knuckles and a single and fatal gunshot wound to his chest. From an evidentiary perspective this is again consistent with George Zimmerman’s story that he was being assaulted and fired a single shot from his hand gun to defend himself. When confronted with these simple facts placed in evidence, it seems clear why the jury would find Mr. Zimmerman not guilty of murder or manslaughter.

There was other evidence in this trial as well, some that the jury saw and some that the judge ruled inadmissible. The court didn't allow Martin's background to come to light. He was suspended from school several times for aggressive behavior; he bragged on Facebook and text messages of his successful fights; after one school suspension they searched his locker and found several pieces of jewelry and what was described as an “instrument used to break into a home”, etc...

The prosecution brought up the possibility of Zimmerman racially profiling Martin; but Zimmerman had no history of racism, if anything, the opposite was true according to his black friends. Was Zimmerman doing his job as neighborhood watchman? During the police call, Zimmerman acknowledged that he was following Trayvon and as mentioned is told, "We don't need you to do that." Clearly, this is not an order to cease and desist. Secondly, if Zimmerman continued to follow the suspect, he is not breaking any law. It does not seem unreasonable to want to keep track of a suspicious person since the police won’t be there for 5-10 minutes. This is further elevated by knowing that George Zimmerman is volunteering to be on his neighborhood watch after a series of local burglaries. I, like many, am confused about how following someone so quickly transitioned to an un-witnessed assault and shooting. Nevertheless, the forensic evidence seems pretty straight forward.

The real tragedy may be how this shooting was tried in the media for a year before it came to trial. Initially, a lot was made of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. As of this writing, more than 20 states have similar laws, but Florida was the first to pass such a law back in 2005. Under the law, people fearing for their lives can use deadly force even if the possibility existed of retreating from a confrontation. Eliminating the “duty to retreat” radically redefined the legal concept of self-defense, which has until now considered deadly force as the absolute last resort outside the home.

From the beginning, law enforcement officials have been among “Stand Your Grounds” staunchest critics. Miami’s chief of police said it was unnecessary and dangerous. The head of the association representing prosecuting attorneys has called for its repeal. A study commissioned by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that in states with Stand Your Ground laws, the number of homicides had significantly increased from the years before the law was enacted. The conclusion from the report was that the law encouraged the use of deadly force when there was, in fact, either no danger or less dangerous alternatives. While all of the may be true, there can be plenty of other reasons for increased gun homicides during the same period. As is so often the case, the statistics can be accurate without exclusively justifying the published conclusion.

Of course, the potential for racial disparities caused by laws of this nature needed to also be researched. A study by the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center commissioned by PBS’s Frontline using FBI data found that whites who kill blacks in "Stand Your Ground" states are far more likely to be found justified in their killings than are blacks who kill, regardless of the race of their victims. Again, statistics are one thing, conclusions are another. The data hasn’t been shown to demonstrate racial bias, because the circumstances of each of these one-on-one killings were not analyzed.

Despite all the media noise about "Stand Your Ground", it was barely mentioned during the trial. Clearly, if as the evidence suggests, that Trayvon was sitting on George’s chest and punching his face, the opportunity for an easy retreat was not present.

The real tragedy in this case may be the role that the media played. We are taught growing up that the news and related media is the “Fourth Estate.” This grand title implies that news agencies fulfill a role as public watch dogs, providing oversight and watching for abuses by our 3 constitutionally established branches of government. By being non-governmental, they are presumed to be able to quickly bring to light their findings. Despite this self-appointed role, there were clear abuses of their public trust. The news quickly made this a story of an armed, white wannabe cop against an innocent young black man. Even the picture shown of Trayvon was a manipulation. As one commentator said, the picture of him was from when he was several years younger and was presented like his "Bar-Mitzvah photo". Clearly, in the court of public opinion, Zimmerman had quite an uphill battle.

It is clear that prior to that rainy evening, George Zimmerman did not know Trayvon Martin. He also did not know that Trayvon loved to fight. I am confident that when Trayvon finally did encounter George Zimmerman, he did not know that he was armed. The circumstances that led to these two people’s lives crossing paths may never really be known.

Is it a tragedy that young black man is dead? …yes!

Is there evidence to show that Trayvon Martin was committing any crime in the neighborhood? …no!

Did George Zimmerman necessarily show good judgment in following Trayvon Martin? …probably not.

Is there evidence to show that George Zimmerman may have felt threatened for his life? …by the time of their confrontation, yes!

Did our judicial system work? I think the answer is yes.

The real tragedy in all this may be the failing of our news and related media. They have been entrusted to report the facts in an unbiased manner in exchange for certain legal protections. The news and media clearly failed to report all the facts, and to report them without bias or agenda. Instead, the media and professional agitators created a firestorm that had much of the country jumping quickly to a conclusion based on a skewed presentation and an abuse of their trusted position in our society.

Maybe, there is actually a victory here, or at least a glimmer of hope to latch onto. Despite the months of media bias and misleading presentation, the small town of Sanford Florida was still able to find a judge and a jury who could focus on only the evidence and the law. If you’re an optimist, this should be something to feel good about.

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