I’ve seen some unjust verdicts in my time, but I’ve always accepted the frustrating principle that, in a system that’s set up to try to protect the rights of the innocent, we will occasionally see guilty people go free. Sounds very high-minded, right? It’s a lot harder to swallow when you see the system treat the innocent as guilty. And that’s what we saw in the trial of George Zimmerman, where, in the eyes of many, Trayvon Martin somehow was the one on trial.
If you want the details of why Zimmerman was found not guilty, you can read this.
But I think Scott Lemieux best addresses the larger issues here:
It is far from obvious that the prosecution (which was unable to even articulate a coherent narrative of the night’s events to counter Zimmerman’s) met its burden of disproving Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt. That it failed to reach a guilty verdict cannot be seen as evidence of white supremacy on the part of the jury.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean that race didn’t play a major role in the case. Trayvon Martin, guilty of nothing but walking on the street in a hoodie, was certainly killed because of racial profiling. And it is entirely possible that a trial of a poor African American killing a white man in similar circumstances would have played out differently (although the problem is not that the jury’s acquittal of Zimmerman was unreasonable but that a poor African-American man would have been much less likely to receive a fair trial, particularly assuming he could not afford to hire his own counsel). It’s easy to imagine a counterfactual case where a mostly white jury would have been less willing to credit a plausible self-defense claim if it came from an young African American man than a white man. To argue that the jury’s verdict wasn’t obviously wrong as a matter of law is not to argue that persistent racial inequities aren’t relevant to the case in a number of ways.
But it is important not to lose sight of something else: the inadequacy of the law in most states to deal with America’s gun culture. Carrying a deadly weapon in public should carry unique responsibilities. In most cases someone with a gun should not be able to escape culpability if he initiates a conflict with someone unarmed and the other party ends up getting shot and killed. Under the current law in many states, people threatened by armed people have few good options, because fighting back might create a license to kill.
As the New Yorker‘s Amy Davidson puts it, “I still don’t understand what Trayvon was supposed to do.” Unless the law is changed to deal with the large number of people carrying concealed guns, there will be more tragic and unnecessary deaths of innocent people like Trayvon Martin for which nobody is legally culpable. And to make claims of self-defense easier to bring, as Florida and more than 20 other states have done, is moving in precisely the wrong direction. And, even more importantly, no matter how self-defense laws are structured, the extremely unusual American practice of allowing large number of citizens to carry concealed weapons leads to many unecessary deaths. (All 50 states, it’s worth noting, permit concealed carry.) Cases like the killing of Martin should compel reconsideration of the lack of significant gun control in the United States, but for whatever reason this isn’t the lesson that most legislators are likely to draw.
But on an emotional level? Black Americans who have seen black men gunned down for carrying wallets, combs or hair clips have every damned right to be furious. White people should just get out of the way. It’s not about us.
Thanks to the continuous pounding of the story by Fox News, black Americans saw a 17-year-old kid presented to white America as a threat, a thug who deserved to die. Once again, Fox didn’t hesitate to pump poison into the public mind.
And conservatives want to know why black people are angry? Okay, Zimmerman was found not guilty technically, but morally? Not even a question. Trayvon Martin did not deserve anything that happened.
Parents of young black boys and men have the not-unreasonable expectation that their kids should be able to go to the corner store and come back alive. And we need to fix the gun laws that, once again, allowed this kind of private execution to happen — and a legal system that patted George Zimmerman on the back and sent him home after he did it.