Facts not in dispute: on 26th February 2012, George Zimmerman stalked Trayvon Martin from his car: then, against police advice, Zimmerman left his car to pursue Martin on foot, carrying his gun. Shortly after Zimmerman had left his car, he shot Martin to death, with the gun he had brought with him. Martin, aged 17 when he was killed, was not armed.
On record: George Zimmerman told the police dispatcher that night “Fucking punks. These assholes. They always get away.”
The only living witness to all of what followed is George Zimmerman himself, who alleges that Trayvon Martin attacked him and he shot the young man in “self-defense”. Martin’s friend Rachel Jeantel, who was talking on the phone with him as he tried to evade Zimmerman, says that Martin told her a “creepy-ass cracker” was following him and she told him to run.
To prove first-degree murder, the prosecution would have had to prove premeditation. (Florida statutes on murder.) In an ordinary country, the fact that George Zimmerman had left his car (against police advice) and taken his gun with him, would be enough to prove intent to kill: in Florida, premeditated murder is
“killing after consciously deciding to do so.” The decision to kill must be proven to be “present at the time of the killing”, but that the “law does not fix the exact period of time that must pass.”
But in the US, going armed to a conflict does not – apparently – prove intent to kill. So, the prosecution went for second-degree murder.
How did the jury find him not guilty?
A jury are obliged to make up their mind on the evidence presented in court, and convict or acquit on the facts of the law, and are required to presume innocence. Blaming the jury as six individuals would be wrong. If the law in Florida allows armed men to follow and shoot unarmed teenagers because the armed man is in his own neighborhood, doesn’t recognise the teenager, and thinks the teenager may be up to no good
because he’s black, then the law is wrong and Florida deserves to fall into the sea.
Those who defend the verdict on the grounds that we just don’t know what happened in the crucial minutes after Zimmerman left his car, ignore the fact that Zimmerman left his car.
Since it was Zimmerman who stalked Martin, the question remains: what ground is a young black man entitled to and on what grounds may he defend himself? What version of events is there for that night in which Martin gets away with his life? Or is it open season on black boys after dark?
A defense of the verdict by Jonathan Turley blandly dismisses George Zimmerman’s stalking Trayvon Martin as
“citizens are allowed to follow people in their neighborhood. That is not unlawful. It was also lawful for Zimmerman to be armed.”
and argues that the jury’s verdict depended on proving that as George Zimmerman, armed with a gun, finally approached Trayvon Martin, who was unarmed, it was Zimmerman who threw the first punch.
However, in the end it was the case and not the prosecution that was demonstrably weak. The fact is that we had no better an idea of what happened that night at the end of this trial than we had at the end of that fateful night. Jurors don’t make social judgments or guesses on verdicts. While many have criticized Zimmerman for following Martin, citizens are allowed to follow people in their neighborhood. That is not unlawful. It was also lawful for Zimmerman to be armed. The question comes down to who started the fight and whether Zimmerman was acting in self-defense.
Jonathan Turley is currently a professor at The George Washington University Law School in Washington D.C. where he teaches torts, criminal procedure, and constitutional law. According to Wikipedia, he is married with four children: it’s a safe bet that none of them are at risk of being killed by a white vigilante because they look like Trayvon Martin. Homicide Watch D.C. provides an interesting picture of what people who get shot in Washington D.C. tend to look like.
Miller Francis noted in his CNN blog that the “stand your ground” law gave George Zimmerman the right to kill Trayvon Martin with a gun, but did not give Martin any right to defend himself with his fists:
Think about it: We’re told over and over that if Zimmerman was afraid of Martin, according to Florida law, he had the right to put a bullet in the chamber of his concealed handgun, get out of his car after being told not to by the 911 dispatcher and follow and confront Martin and shoot him to death.
At the same time, we are told that Martin, who had far greater reason to fear Zimmerman, practically and for reasons of American history, did not have the right to confront his stalker, stand his ground and defend himself, including by using his fists. We are told that this was entirely unjustified and by doing so, Martin justified his own execution.
Many people on Twitter this morning are pointing out that Marissa Alexander, who fired a warning shot that hit a wall, not her husband, has been sent to jail for 20 years for trying to scare off a man who had been physically abusive to her.
Mychal Denzel Smith wrote in The Nation, before the Zimmerman verdict but anticipating unhappily that the jury might well acquit him:
Justice needs to be more proactive. It should consist of an entire society doing everything it can to ensure that what happened to Trayvon never happens again. This includes a commitment to seeing the humanity in black men and boys, and letting go of the entrenched idea of their inherent criminality. It means divesting from the racist ideology that would have us believe black men are preternaturally violent creatures seeking to wreak havoc on America. Justice is black boys not having to grow up with that hanging over their heads. Justice is support for their potential. Real justice is this country truly believing that the killing of black boys is a tragedy.
When Trayvon’s father was on the witness stand, it was clear, more than a year later, he was still trying to process his son’s death. Assistant State Attorney Bernie de la Rionda was asking him about the 911 call where you can hear the gunshot that killed Trayvon. He started his question: “You realized that that was the shot…” and before he could finish, Tracy Martin chimed in, “That killed my son, yes.”
Justice is making sure no parent ever has to say those words again.
that he follows a particular procedure every time he is stopped by police to avoid a potentially deadly confrontation. He removes his hat and sunglasses, rolls down his window, and puts out his hands to show he is not armed.
“I do that because I live in America,” Burton added.
He said that as a responsible parent, he taught his son to follow the same procedure.
Sometimes when you read a court case decision from another country – one with markedly different cultural attitudes, different laws, different standards of human rights – you’re left not blaming the specific trial or the jurors but the whole picture of horrifying injustice illustrated by that one court case.
Once George Zimmerman had decided that Trayvon Martin was a threat, based entirely on the colour of his skin, there was nothing Martin could do to survive that night: and the justice system in Florida says that what Zimmerman did to Martin was no crime.
- Jamila Aisha Brown: If Trayvon Martin had been a woman… We would probably never have heard of her.
- Fred Clark: In Florida, it’s not necessarily a crime to shoot and kill an unarmed teenager.
- Aura Bogado: White Supremacy Acquits George Zimmerman
- Annalee Newitz: Disturbing chart shows rise in “justified killings” of blacks in U.S.
- For a response that, while making an effort, still ignores the point Miller Francis and Gary Younge make: Andrew Cohen’s Law and Justice and George Zimmerman.
Zimmerman's brother just said, on @CNN, that he's worried vigilantes will take the law into their own hands. Oh, the irony.
— Alice Anderson (@AlicePoet) July 14, 2013