It’s too much to hope, of course, that Saturday night’s not-guilty verdict in the Florida murder trial of neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman will put to rest the broad social resentments and suspicions that turned the case into a media sensation and a culture-war battleground.
And no more consensus would have followed had Zimmerman been convicted for fatally shooting 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in February 2012 after Zimmerman’s tailing of the unarmed youth led to a violent confrontation.
But whatever one’s view of this tragic story, it is worth trying to recognize a measure of justice achieved through the painful legal process that has followed.
Those who sympathize with Zimmerman are doubtless relieved by his acquittal. But they may also interpret it as confirmation of their view that he should never have been charged — that his prosecution was a persecution fueled by racial and anti-gun politics.
It may have been Zimmerman’s misfortune that for many he came to symbolize vexing social issues reaching far beyond the specific facts of his fateful encounter with Martin — racial profiling, the persistent epidemic of gun violence, and the many forms of injustice and disadvantage that burden young black males in this country.
Those concerns, however, are real and legitimate. It was almost inevitable that special scrutiny would attach to a shocking tragedy seeming to involve them all.
Back when it remained unclear whether Zimmerman would be charged, many Americans simply found it implausible to imagine that, had the roles been reversed (had an unarmed white teenager walking home from a convenience store been shot to death by a black man), the shooter would have gone free without the facts even being presented to a jury.
But now a jury has considered those facts, vigorously presented and debated in a well-conducted trial. That jury has unanimously found Zimmerman not guilty, and it is worth reviewing what that judgment does and does not mean.
The verdict does not mean that Zimmerman’s claim to have acted in self-defense has been proven. It means that the state could not prove “beyond reasonable doubt” that Zimmerman’s actions constituted a crime — the high standard America’s system of justice demands before the government can take away a person’s freedom.
It appears that, for jurors, the knowable facts simply were not sufficiently consistent with the prosecution’s portrait of Zimmerman as a reckless and malicious killer. For example, Zimmerman called police before the shooting and waited for them afterward — actions that seem unlikely if he had harbored criminal intent.
But surely this disaster, for all concerned, has reiterated one lesson, especially critical in this era of coast-to-coast concealed-carry gun laws. That is the importance of avoiding all unnecessary confrontations.
It is around respect for the rule of the law and the principle of due process that Americans can unite even in a polarized time. The nation must seek that unity now, taking comfort from the knowledge that Trayvon Martin’s death was not ignored nor minimized. The facts surrounding it were fully aired and fiercely contested — and were resolved in accordance with law and within the limits of an imperfect human system of justice.
Americans, meanwhile, must take from this heartbreaking ordeal a renewed commitment to cleansing their society of violence and of racial prejudice in all its forms.