Many people are outraged by the Trayvon Martin case – they perceive racial motivations behind the actions of George Zimmerman, a wannabe police officer drawing stereotyped conclusions about a young black man in a hoodie, acting illegally on his assumptions, and covering up through a transparently false story. They see the state’s feeble and inept investigation and presentation of the case; and they see not-so-subtle prejudices behind Florida’s gun and self-defense laws. Many of those same people are outraged by the George Zimmerman verdict. Consider me in the former group but not the latter.
Florida has created an atmosphere of vigilantism that leads predictably to confrontation and excessive violence. The entire country is now aware that George Zimmerman was a volunteer of his local town watch, but Town Watch is not called Town Act, and for a very good reason. We hire and train policemen to act, and we are all grateful when volunteers are willing to watch our neighborhoods for possible criminal problems; but we do not hire these volunteers to police our streets or make the myriad decisions necessary to ferret out crime. The key word is “watch” – we may never fully know what prompted George Zimmerman to leave his car when the police dispatcher suggested there was no need to follow Trayvon Martin, but is there the slightest question that an unarmed Zimmerman might well have acted differently? Town Watch volunteers should not be armed; if the use or threat of force becomes necessary, they have walkie talkies to alert people who are hired and trained to know how and when to do so.
Adding to the casual arming of the civilian population, Florida has passed a law known as Stand Your Ground. In essence, this new law makes one significant change to the law of self-defense. Traditionally, and in Pennsylvania, you do not need to retreat when faced with life-threatening violence unless you can do so in complete safety. This makes complete sense – no matter what circumstances you are facing, if you can escape the situation without harm to yourself or anyone else, that is obviously preferable to any other scenario. Stand Your Ground changes this centuries old understanding of self-defense – under this law, you may use deadly force when confronted with deadly force, even if you could leave the confrontation safely. The Zimmerman defense team did not utilize the Stand Your Ground law; they opted instead to argue that Zimmerman could not escape in complete safety. But laws change perceptions – how else to explain the condemnation of drunk driving after the many years that it was considered socially acceptable and even humorous? The passing of Stand Your Ground in Florida sends the very clear message to the population that violence in the context of self-defense is acceptable even when it’s not absolutely necessary.
Am I outraged by the killing of Trayvon Martin when it could so easily have been avoided? Of course. Am I outraged that the state of Florida allows a wannabe cop with a racist attitude to walk the streets with a loaded gun? Certainly. Am I outraged by the atmosphere of violence fostered by the Florida legislature in its gun and self-defense laws? Without question. Am I outraged by the verdict in State vs. George Zimmerman? No.
I was a public defender in Philadelphia for 27 years. I know that our law says that no one can be convicted of any crime unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and I know that many people have been convicted on less evidence than that standard requires. I know, beyond any doubt whatsoever, that if we start to complain that the high burden of proof for conviction was met when there wasn’t enough evidence under the law, those who suffer will be poor people accused of crime. And many of them will be people of color.
I was not present at the trial; nor did I rush home every night to watch the replay on television. But I followed it closely enough to say this – the Zimmerman trial was not the Rodney King case. This was not a crime captured on video, with a jury that bent over backwards to ignore the evidence and give police officers an outrageous verdict. Rather, huge amounts of evidence that might be expected in a murder conviction – an eyewitness, a confession – were missing from the case entirely. Juries are told that a reasonable doubt arises from the evidence or the lack of evidence – in the Zimmerman case there was a significant lack of evidence. While the state’s medical examiner was confused and ruffled, the defense’s expert (one of the leading medical examiners in the world, and author of a seminal text in the field) was professional and confident. Is it reasonable to complain that the state’s expert should have been better prepared and more accomplished? Yes. Should the state have put greater and more prompt effort into evidence gathering? No doubt. Did the jury reach the wrong verdict considering the evidence that was given to them? It would appear not.
It is silly to believe that we are living in a post-racial era, Barack Obama’s presence in the White House notwithstanding. The same legislators who are dismantling our gun laws and creating an atmosphere of violence in our laws are climbing over each other to repress minority voting, so that they might continue to dismantle our gun laws and create an atmosphere of violence. We must protest these outrages at the tops of our lungs, just as we must continue working to expose the racism that lies just beyond the silhouette of a hoodie. But we should be very careful not to complain that the evidence was sufficient to convict when it clearly wasn’t. In other words, we should be careful what we complain about.