Zimmerman Trial: A Defense of the Grey Area

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So much has come out of the Zimmerman trial on so many platforms that it’s difficult for those of us simply attempting to parse something true out of the trial, to do so – perhaps, most befuddling is how the trial's verdict was so contrary to popular sentiment. This public response, fueled one year ago by hoody vigils and social media, casts George Zimmerman as a racist mall cop weasel, and Trayvon Martin as a tragic symbol of persistent ignorance. A lot of outrage stems from the misconception that our judicial process failed, or is flimsy and inept enough to let the “loser” win.

These accusations have a place in the discussion, but this is a misappropriation of them. Writer and editor Ta-Nehisi Coates expresses the confusion best in an article for The Atlantic, “In trying to assess the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, two seemingly conflicting truths emerge for me. The first is that based on the case presented by the state, and based on Florida law, George Zimmerman should not have been convicted of second degree murder or manslaughter. The second is that the killing of Trayvon Martin is a profound injustice.”

It may be more interesting to discuss the verity of the latter “truth” – we’ll get to that – but the former’s is undeniable. The process worked exactly as it is set up to. Zimmerman was accused of second-degree murder (not pre-meditated). He pleaded “not guilty," which, according to the jury instructions means, we “must presume or believe George Zimmerman is innocent. The presumption stays with George Zimmerman … unless it has been overcome by the evidence to the exclusion of and beyond a reasonable doubt.” It was up to the defense, the state of Florida in this case, then, to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that Zimmerman did not act in self-defense, did not feel his life was at risk, and indeed, killed Trayvon Martin. After sixteen hours of deliberation, the jury unanimously agreed they still had reasonable doubts that Zimmerman was guilty of the accused crime. He was subsequently acquitted. There is nothing conspiratorial or odd about the process here – this is how most criminal trials go.  

A few key points of the trial shed some light on the previous paragraph. Zimmerman’s acquittal does not mean he was not guilty of a crime, he just wasn’t guilty of the crime he was accused of committing. Alan Dershowitz, high-profile lawyer and Harvard law professor, criticized the prosecution, calling their initial accusation “perjurious." He told Fox News, “There’s nothing in this affidavit that suggests second-degree murder. The elements of second-degree murder aren’t here.”

This position is not unique to Dershowitz; many if not all legal experts agree the prosecution overcharged, and may have withheld information to make their position look defensible to a judge. Some have suggested, with Dershowitz again at the forefront, that it was a political move, and the prosecution’s intention was not to hold a fair trial, but to bury Zimmerman.

Questions about the legality of the firearm have also been raised. While not technically a cop (he was the head of a gated community’s “night watch”), Zimmerman had every right to be carrying a gun as a United States citizen living in the state of Florida. Perhaps most essentially (this again taken from the jury instructions), "He had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force,” given that your run-of-the-mill, rational person would believe, in Zimmerman's exact situation, that his/her life was at risk. There is photo evidence Zimmerman was punched, was considerably injured in such a way that matches his personal account (bruises to the face, broken nose, scratches and clear damage to the back of the head) of the night in question. 

The jury concluded that it is conceivable that Zimmerman was both reasonable, and believed his life was at risk. And in the end, it’s almost impossible to prove in court that Zimmerman tailed Martin for racial reasons – the account of the entire night is a penumbra of shaky testimonies, evidence literally washed out by rain, and ambiguous telephone conversations. Because these events are obscured, and will remain so for the perceivable future, reasonable doubts are undeniable.

A JD candidate at Boston College whom I spoke to on condition of anonymity agreed: “When you have no have no eyewitnesses, and the evidence cuts towards supporting the Defense's version of events, no honest juror can claim to have the moral certainty to say the Prosecution proved their case beyond a reasonable doubt.”It is true, he should have been acquitted according to the stricture's of this nation's legal system. 

Back to the second “truth” that this was an “injustice." This is where it gets tricky. Some read in the transcript of Zimmerman’s phone call to the police a clear instance of racial profiling, Zimmerman concluding something of Martin’s character and intention given the color of his skin, and the style of his clothing. His calling Martin “a real suspicious guy," then possiblydisobeying orders to not pursue after he left, and then, finally, possiblyinitiating contact without warrant (according to the testimony of Rachel Jenteal, a messy affair), all reek of tacit racism familiar to African-Americans. President Obama, in candid, teleprompter-less remarks here), captures the full scope of the psychological damage it has caused that community in stating, "It's important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn't go away," and specifically when he spoke about the locking of doors, or white women clutching their purses a little tighter when in the presence of a black man.

But you don’t need to be black to understand that the logic of profiling in general is reductive and close-minded: Because a disproportionate amount of black people commit violent crimes, if you are black, ipso facto you’re more likely to commit crime. The practical result, as Obama discusses, on a micro scale is locking car doors in the presence of a black man, and on a macro scale, it is the death of Trayvon Martin.

Just as the jury found it unclear that Zimmerman didn’t kill him in self-defense, it is unclear that this is “an injustice," or an instance of racial profiling. I don’t deny the whiffs of it; I don’t deny that it could be true, but I don’t know it to be true. Neither did the jury, but they are mandated to make a decision under strict guidelines. And maybe that doubt, that nothing can be said definitively to be true in this case, maybe that’s what makes the outcry so loud, vicious and dispersed. There is no one or thing certainly culpable. Is it the fault of gun lobbies for insisting on the constitutional right to bear arms? Of the "Stand your ground” law?  Of Trayvon’s parents for divorcing at a young age? Undoubtedly, questions of "Who is to blame?" raised by the trial are as numerous as the viewpoints and opinions regarding the verdict. 

I could blame us for our need to point the finger at the most tangible, conspicuous suspects to avoid searching for the difficult, hidden culprits of such tragedies. But even that is too simple, not subtle enough. The legal system does what it can to uphold justice (it did here), but only according to how we utilize it. Society has certain unwritten codes, but they're tacit pacts made between people. In every case it comes down to we, the people, and we–the people who accpet violence as a means to an end, valorize contestation, and shun weakness–retreat. So long as this outlook persists, no court ruling will prevent an identical crime from occurring, and flimsy racial divides won't dissolve. I believe nothing short of fundamental American ideology is at stake here.  

 

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