It may not be possible to consider the case of George Zimmerman, acquitted Saturday of all charges in the killing of Trayvon Martin, as anything but a sad commentary on the state of race relations and the battle over gun rights in America today.
Certainly it is about race — ask any black man, up to and including President Obama, and he will tell you at least a few stories that sound eerily like what happened that rainy winter night in Sanford, Fla.
While Zimmerman’s conviction might have provided an emotional catharsis, we would still be a country plagued by racism, which persists in ever more insidious forms despite the Supreme Court’s sanguine assessment that “things have changed dramatically,” as it said in last month’s ruling striking down the heart of the Voting Rights Act. (The Justice Department is right to continue its investigation into whether Zimmerman may still be prosecuted under federal civil-rights laws.)
It has been a bad year so far for gun control. But if anything, cases like this should be as troubling as the mass killings that always prompt a national outcry and promises of legislative remedy. We were heartened that Obama, in his statement after the verdict was issued, took the opportunity to denounce once again “the tide of gun violence” sweeping the country.
In the end, what is most frightening is that there are so many people with guns who are like George Zimmerman. Fear and racism may never fully be eliminated by legislative or judicial order, but neither should our laws allow and even facilitate their most deadly expression.
Trayvon Martin was an unarmed boy walking home from the convenience store. If only Florida could give him back his life as easily as it is giving back George Zimmerman’s gun.
NEW YORK TIMES
The rule of law must be respected. But the central tragedy of this case — the death of a 17-year-old boy who had been on a simple errand to get snacks — remains.
Never a simple homicide, Martin’s death became the subject of a charged debate about race, criminal profiling and Florida’s permissive “stand your ground” gun law. Despite the jury’s verdict, those issues are not likely to go away. One reason the death of this boy in a gray hooded sweatshirt so resonated that even the president of the United States felt compelled to comment was that it brought to the surface historic concerns of minority parents about the vulnerability of their sons. The ineptness of Florida authorities in the initial investigation of this death validated that worry and deepened the distrust.
Unfortunately, though, much of the public debate has done grievous disservice to the legitimacy of these issues. Hucksters and political demagogues exploited tragedy — a boy’s death, a family’s grief, a man’s freedom — and created what has become the now all-too-familiar media circus of oversaturation and rush to judgment.
Zimmerman’s attorney called the prosecution “disgraceful.” But we think it was valuable that the case was aired in an open court before a fair-minded judge and decided by a jury that appeared to be careful and take its time. Guilt was not proved beyond a reasonable doubt, and Zimmerman is free to resume his life even as his attorney lamented that it “will never be the same.”
That also is as it should be. Zimmerman could have done what police told him to do and stayed in his vehicle. No one would have heard about him — and Trayvon Martin could have been able to get home on that rainy Sunday evening.
The nation should respect the jury that found Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder. Defense attorneys argued that he fired in self-defense, and prosecutors couldn’t prove otherwise. Without enough evidence to challenge Zimmerman’s version of events, jurors had no choice but to acquit. We saw a criminal-justice system that is designed to protect the rights of the accused, that rightly sets a high bar for a criminal conviction.
The jurors reached a unanimous verdict. The jurors did their job.
The same can’t be said of police and prosecutors in the aftermath of the shooting. It is their cavalier response — not the verdict — that compounds this tragedy.
Sanford, Fla., police quickly accepted Zimmerman’s explanation that he pulled his gun because he felt his life was in danger. They weren’t duly troubled by his remarks that Martin was a “punk” who “looks like he’s up to no good.” They didn’t sufficiently question his account or his motives. They shrugged it off.
An angry public demanded to know whether police and prosecutors would have scrutinized the evidence more closely if Martin were white. It was, and is, a fair question.
More than a million people signed an online petition demanding Zimmerman’s arrest. The U.S. Justice Department launched an investigation into Martin’s death. The Sanford police chief stepped down, and a special prosecutor was named to handle the case. Six weeks after the shooting, Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder.
The fact that Zimmerman was eventually acquitted of the charge — and the lesser charge of manslaughter, which the jury also rejected — doesn’t validate the cursory dismissal by law enforcement back in February 2012. This case deserved to be examined thoroughly and adjudicated.
As the case moved to trial, many of those who led the campaign stressed that what they demanded was not an outcome, but a trial. But many now are bitterly disappointed at the result.
The trial was fair. The evidence came up short. The outrage was that there almost wasn’t a trial at all.