Thoughts on the Zimmerman/Martin trial
George Zimmerman's killing of Trayvon Martin was a story that always carried more baggage than it should.
Version 1. We tried to make it about race, and it certainly started out that way: unarmed 17-year-old black boy shot dead by white man has a certain historical resonance. Plus, there was the added flourish of young black man being gunned down by white man for walking in the wrong (i.e., white) neighborhood. Trayvon was a good-looking young kid, he was unquestionably innocent of anything when George Zimmerman started following him, and he was unquestionably unarmed.
But then details emerged which muddied the storyline. First, Zimmerman didn't easily fit the role of racist; had the chubby Hispanic's name been Rodriguez, the story never would have made it past page six of the local fishwrap. And Zimmerman's injuries were a problem, too; they were not consistent with any version of the story in which Zimmerman walks up to Trayvon and murders him in cold blood. Something happened between the two that night, and the physical evidence shows that until Zimmerman used his gun, he was getting the worst of it.
Version 2. And at that point, of course, it became a debate about guns, or, more accurately, a celebration of them: Martin's killing was a vindication of Zimmerman's classical right of self- defense. Mostly, it was chest-pumping on the right, and well-earned: when there's twenty pre-teen children slaughtered in a schoolhouse, and you can still keep Congress from passing a bill requiring nothing more than background checks for gun purchases, which are supported by a majority of gun owners... Well, we know who's calling the shots, no pun intended.
But there were problems with that version, too, the most troubling of which is that Zimmerman brought a gun to a fist fight. Does any reasonable person really believe that if Zimmerman didn't have a gun, Martin would have killed him? All Martin's death demonstrated was how deadly guns are and the ease with which they kill; the discussion would have gone quite differently if Zimmerman had used his gun to bludgeon Martin to death. If George Zimmerman didn't have a gun than night, he'd be uninjured and Trayvon Martin would be alive, because without a gun Zimmerman wouldn't have felt emboldened enough to follow someone was doing nothing more than peaceably walking through the neighborhood.
So what did we learn? I learned that the arc of my legal career might have gone much higher had I been so fortunate as to try cases against California prosecutors in the 1980's and 1990's, and Florida prosecutors now. Casey Anthony, and now this? I didn't see much of the trial, but what I did see left me with the firm belief that this case is not going to serve as any more of a springboard for the prosecutors' legal careers than the O.J. Simpson case was for Chris Darden and Marcia Clark.
We also learned something about race and ourselves. Mostly, that it's still kind of ugly. The undercurrent of the entire trial was whether there'd be race riots if Zimmerman was acquitted, some pointing to the promise of King Samir Shabazz, nominal leader of the Black Panther Party, that "this time we're going out to Whitey's suburbs and burning down HIS community." That's a vow to be taken with several tons of salt; over the past 40-some years, the Black Panther Party has proved spectacularly unsuccessful at anything besides getting its members killed by policemen. Nonetheless, the conservative blogosphere went into overdrive in an attempt to vindicate those predictions, pointing to this store being looted here and a car overturned there, the entire national tab of injuries, arrests, and damage not coming close to what Ohio State students did to Columbus in the aftermath of the Buckeyes' 14-9 win over Michigan in November 2002.
To be sure, the race hustlers were out, and one is left to idly speculate how things might have turned out if Al Sharpton were one-tenth the man that Martin Luther King, Jr. was. But then Barack Obama, whose legal training has apparently taught him that he should use the presidential pulpit to expound views which could threaten a defendant's right to a fair trial, isn't FDR, either. Giants have walked among us; they do not now. That's part of the problem. By the end Sharpton and others seemed to be merely going through motions, but for most blacks, especially as the evidence developed, the case was never about race on that simplistic a level. It really was so much more than this case. George Zimmerman was simply one more in a long line of Southern white men acquitted of killing a black man.
What the public learned about the criminal justice system is what we lawyers already know: cases are messy. The effort in some quarters to paint Martin's affinity for marijuana as equivalent to a proclivity for mayhem overreached, but Martin's halo was nonetheless tarnished. So was Zimmerman's; there were the charges for domestic violence, resisting arrest, and battery on a police officer. The evidence wasn't clean for the prosecutors, but some part of Zimmerman's story didn't mesh, either, like the positioning of Martin's body. But that's what always happens. Nobody walks out of a courtroom in a criminal trial looking as good as they did when they walked in. Everybody gets dirty, and the case gets blurry, and oftentimes it comes down to not whether there's a doubt, but whether it's a reasonable one. When a case boils down to which set of parents you're going to believe when they say it's their son screaming for help on the 911 call...
It wasn't there. Not as a legal case, and not as a symbolic one. It became one, because that's what we do in this country any more: everybody has to take to the barricades each time some issue comes up, and there's no reasoned discussion, everything is reduced to black and white. In life and in law, it's just not like that.