A number of people say in the wake of the “not guilty” verdict of George Zimmerman in his killing of Trayvon Martin that this was a “fair trial.”
As an aside, many of the same people now expressing satisfaction that “justice has been done” can be heard frequently complaining that victims of crime don’t get their due in criminal courts and that all of the rights go to the suspect/defendant. This verdict exonerating defendant Zimmerman of wrongdoing should surely quell their complaints. After all, Zimmerman is the victim in this case, not Trayvon who lies six feet under because of Zimmerman. Or so one must conclude from the comments of those who celebrate this verdict.
Let’s, however, consider this notion that this was a “fair trial.” A close examination of this view reveals the underlying institutional and ideological barriers to someone like Trayvon Martin getting his day in court. Trayvon. along with black people in general, were in fact the real defendants in this case. And this verdict finds Trayvon and black people guilty, guilty, guilty.
Today’s New York Times (“In Zimmerman Case, Self-Defense Was Hard to Topple”) analyzes the verdict by arguing that Zimmerman’s self-defense claim was bolstered by prosecutors’ missteps at trial, by police slipups, and that given the standards of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, it was from the beginning going to be almost impossible for the prosecution to prevail against Zimmerman and his version of events.
The NYT article, however, shares the underlying assumptions that led to Trayvon’s being cast as suspicious-by-definition and as the aggressor in this case.
Why? This requires a little explanation.
“Stand Your Ground” (SYG) was not invoked by the defense, but its presence was nonetheless felt as the elephant in the room. According to SYG, someone who asserts that they felt endangered by someone else can even pursue their attacker. As the NYT’s article puts it, “The provision, enacted by the Florida Legislature in 2005 and since adopted by more than 20 other states, allows people who fear great harm or death not to retreat, even if they can safely do so. If an attacker is retreating, people are still permitted to use deadly force.” Talk about putting the law into the hands of “victims”! Under SYG they can even use deadly force against people who are retreating.
Regarding the prosecutors’ missteps: I do not know if prosecutors prepared their witnesses before trial, readying them for what they were likely to face during cross-examination. Such preparation for cross-examination’s rigors is standard practice for lawyers. As the watchword for trial lawyers goes, you never ask a question of a witness that you don’t already know their answer to. You make sure ahead of time that they are prepared for what they are likely to face so that they are not caught off-guard and blurt out something ill-considered or potentially damaging to their credibility. It’s clear that key witnesses for the prosecution based on their performance in court were either badly prepared by the prosecutors or not prepared by them at all. Either these prosecutors are the classic Keystone Cops in the courtroom or they deliberately held back from preparing and arguing this case vigorously.
There are those, again, such as The NYT, that hold, however, that the real problem was SYG, not the prosecutors’ choices and conduct. The NYT says that the key problem was that Zimmerman’s version of events was not shaken by the prosecutors and therefore the prosecution was doomed. As I discussed in my last article, however, even if you take Zimmerman’s version as gospel, his version indicts him as guilty. The key to this case, therefore, isn’t the fact that Zimmerman’s version of events was unshaken. The problem was more fundamental. Trayvon Martin never had a chance, either the day he was walking towards his father’s fiancée’s house carrying his snacks, or in this Sanford, Florida courtroom.
The fact that the defense declined to raise SYG was much to the surprise of the prosecutors and many other observers in this case’s early stages.
The fact that the actual victim in this case – Trayvon Martin – had a right to SYG was never, however, raised by the prosecutors.
Why did the prosecutors not raise SYG on behalf of Trayvon Martin? Why didn’t they consider that Trayvon was in fear for his life from George Zimmerman and that Trayvon’s actions, including using deadly force against Zimmerman, were wholly justified? As the elephant in the room, and as prosecutors in the state where SYG was born, they can’t have been unaware of SYG. But it appears that the prosecutors never once entertained the idea of invoking SYG on Trayvon’s behalf.
How can that be? Even if Zimmerman’s story were treated as unassailably true, if the prosecutors had deemed Trayvon, the victim in this case, as in fear for his life and permitted to use all means, including the use of deadly force, to defend himself against a malicious attacker, then it would not matter whether prosecutors were successful in challenging Zimmerman’s account of events. Indeed, one can take Zimmerman’s version and accept it entirely, as it actually indicts Zimmerman himself since it gives Trayvon every right to act in the most aggressive fashion possible, including banging Zimmerman’s head against the concrete.
Can you even imagine the Florida Prosecutor’s Office even making this argument in court? It would have been entirely legitimate and would have and should have turned the case upside down and won the case against Zimmerman.
The prosecutors probably never even thought to invoke SYG for Trayvon, along with all of the other people now deeming this trial as “fair,” because Trayvon was a young black man and young black men don’t have a right to be fearful of white people. They don’t have the right of self-defense. They don’t have a right to walk unmolested and unsuspected in a gated community carrying snacks. They are, by definition under this system’s racist assumptions, the predators and the ones to be feared. These assumptions are so deep and so buried under a veneer of racial tolerance that virtually no one in the official discourse, including in the Paper of Record, even thinks to question it. That is why this verdict concentrates what is so wrong about the existing state of affairs in this country and why it must be fought, not just as a verdict by itself, but the whole array of racist assumptions, policies, and practices that treat black people as chattel and the villians rather than victims of a system that continues to mistreat, mass incarcerate, maim, and kill blacks under the New Jim Crow.
Dennis Loo is a member of the Steering Committee of World Can’t Wait. He blogs at dennisloo.com.