Martin and Race

I’ll admit at first I was tempted to regard the Trayvon Martin murder trial as just another 24/7 distraction, as did many pundits. Depending on their particular interest set, they complained that the trial was diverting us from more important news—the civil war in Syria, the recent Supreme Court decisions, the travails of Edward Snowden in the great unfrozen north, the efforts of Texas to shut down access to an otherwise legal abortion, the latest machinations keeping Congress from dealing sensibly with immigration, the untimely death of Cory Monteith. For me, this was more of a kneejerk reaction than anything else. I tend to get upset when news coverage is hijacked by any single issue, especially when we are provided with hours of mono-issue repetitive speculation when there is, in fact, no new information.

However, I soon came to the realization that Trayvon Martin’s murder was about much more than a local misunderstanding. It was also about the effects of self-defense laws and the willful incompetence of Florida law enforcement, but even more than that. The background reality was mostly ignored by the trial lawyers and the judge and, eventually, the jury, and, as usual, by the media. That largely unmentioned presence in the courtroom, affecting questions and testimony and interpretations of events, was race-related bias. That was why the trial turned out the way it did.

To review, George Zimmerman followed Trayvon Martin, who was doing nothing more than walking home after going to the store in his own neighborhood. Zimmerman mistakenly profiled and confronted Martin as a threat (likely because of his race), pulled his gun after a brief skirmish, and shot Martin at point blank range, killing him. It was obvious that Zimmerman was responsible for starting the confrontation and for the shooting. Yet he was acquitted of any crime. There are many questions about how this happened, and many reasons why this admitted killer was freed. These include the following:

A. The Composition of the Jury: The jury had only six members, all of them white (one of them Hispanic). The original jury pool of 40 contained only six black members. Of those, the defense challenged two “for cause”, arguing that they knew too much about the case. The prosecutors had two peremptory challenges available, and used both of them to remove two white jurors from the final jury, but the judge reversed those challenges and seated the two. In addition to the six women on the main jury there were four alternates; two white women and two white males, one of whom was “possibly Hispanic”. Why is this important? Because all-white juries are much more likely than mixed juries to rule against black defendants. With at least one black person on a jury the results in trials involving black defendants are statistically similar to all other trials. Mixed juries don’t favor black defendants, but they don’t penalize them either.

B. The Missing Topic: One of the trial jurors, known only as B-37, has offered an interview on CNN. In it, she said that, “Race had nothing to do with this trial.” Admittedly, the prosecution did its best not to bring up the question of race, and the judge, unaccountably, told the lawyers they could not mention “racial profiling”. The police had identified people who knew Zimmerman and considered him racist, but none were called to testify in the trial in spite of the fact that it would have been relevant to the charge of second-degree murder. The defense lawyers repeatedly made the charge that Trayvon Martin had been the one to bring race into the confrontation, a charge that only indicated how little they understood the testimony of Rachel Jeantel, Martin’s friend. In fact, anyone familiar with race relations in the United States could easily pick up race-related overtones and clues in the lawyers’ questions and the witness testimony. Unfortunately, the lawyers and the judge in this trial seemed clueless, as did the jurors; B-37 noted that race never came up in the jury discussions as they worked toward a verdict.

C. Florida Law: The defense lawyers did not invoke the infamous “Stand Your Ground” law. They didn’t have to. They argued self-defense, which is broadly interpreted in the State of Florida. Also, the “Stand Your Ground” principle has been made part of standard jury instructions, the last information that the judge provides before the jury begins deliberations on the verdict. These instructions noted that Zimmerman was “justified in using deadly force if he reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself”, and that he had “no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force”. Thus the principle of “Stand Your Ground” was clearly and unambiguously invoked by the judge, as required by state law. In many states the defendant has to prove that self-defense was his motive. In Florida, the prosecution must disprove self-defense, beyond a reasonable doubt. The jurors, three of whom had at first wanted to convict Zimmerman, felt they had little choice but to let him off.

D. Judicial Error: The “Stand Your Ground” law has one limitation. A defendant cannot claim self-defense if he “initially provokes the use of force against himself”. The prosecution wanted to include this clause in the jury instructions, but the defense team, understandably, argued against it. The judge ruled in favor of the defense, essentially leaving the jury without knowledge of that important qualification.

E. Juror Empathy: AS B-37 noted, “I wanted to find George Zimmerman guilty of not using his senses, but you can’t … charge anyone” for that. Actually, in most states that’s exactly what the charge of manslaughter is for; to punish carelessness that results in great bodily harm to others. But B-37 also believed Zimmerman’s story of the confrontation, despite numerous serious and obvious lies that he told about it. And she believed that Zimmerman had good underlying motives. This could well be because she also clearly identified with Zimmerman and not with Martin. You’d think a woman could empathize with a person walking home alone being stalked by a stranger; apparently not this time. Her interview indicated that she thought Martin and Jeantel belonged to a different social group that she didn’t quite understand. She’s not racist; she just doesn’t understand “them”.

F. Hostile Witness: The prosecution called the chief investigator for the Sanford Police Department, Chris Serino, to discuss the evidence involved in the case. The night of the shooting Serino had interviewed Zimmerman and at the end had assured him that everything would be okay. He released Zimmerman without charges, and three weeks later he and the police chief appeared in a press conference to say that no charges would be filed in the case. They also noted that to charge Zimmerman would violate his constitutional rights under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. Then a day later he requested that a manslaughter charge be filed against Zimmerman. Why did he change his mind? There was public pressure. Serino was demoted, and he blamed leaks of information from the police department for the public outcry, and blamed black police officers for the leaks. It is probably not surprising that Chris Serino, on the stand in the trial, supported Zimmerman’s story. How often does a police official undermine his own evidence? This was a serious setback for the prosecution.

Given all of the above, it is not surprising that George Zimmerman was acquitted. Given the attitudes of the dominant white establishment in Sanford and Seminole County, it is surprising that he was ever brought to trial. It is true that not all of the characteristics listed above are the result of racial insensitivity or ignorance or misplaced empathy, but most of them are. Given a more aware judge and lawyers, both prosecution and defense, or simply a more knowledgeable jury, there could have been a very different outcome.

Unfortunately, most people will never hear about, much less understand, that part of the story. Our news media has ignored the race question as surely as the trial itself did, and has glossed over most of the details. One exception is CNN, which has held several town meetings and interviews exploring all aspects of this travesty of justice. I only hope that their coverage has some impact, because this case, and the Paula Deen controversy, and the negative responses to the cute biracial Cheerios advertisement, and the continuing hyperbolic attacks on President Obama and Eric Holder, and the remarks made by the conservative members of the Supreme Court about the Voting Rights Act … all of that shows that this country has a long way to go before white attitudes about minorities are no longer a problem.

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One Response to Martin and Race

  1. Robert Tighe says:

    … and now we hear that the medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Trayvon Martin wanted to testify that the forensic evidence indicated that Martin could not have been on top of George Zimmerman when he was shot. That seems like an important element that the prosecution could have used, given that it directly countered the setup of the crime scene that Zimmerman’s defense team had imagined. But the prosecution lawyers told the medical examiner that they did not want this testimony to come out.

    Some legal analysts have commented that it looked as if the prosecution had intentionally sabotaged their own case against Zimmerman, and it’s beginning to look as if they are right. Why would they do that? Perhaps because nobody in law enforcement in Florida wanted to prosecute this case in the first place?

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