The verdict in the George Zimmerman second-degree murder trial means different things to different observers. Lawyers, other than the prosecution team, have pretty much universally declared that the state of Florida produced insufficient evidence at trial to convict Zimmerman of any crime, let alone second-degree murder, which required the prosecutors to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman murdered Martin evincing a depraved mind regardless of human life.
The juror who first spoke declared that the jury was ultimately of one mind that Zimmerman feared for his life and had a right to defend himself with a handgun against a bare-hands assault. If anything, this juror remarked, Zimmerman exercised bad judgment by putting himself in a position to confront Martin. Perhaps Martin also exercised bad judgment if he confronted Zimmerman on that rainy night, but we will never know what happened.
The trial is over, but the debate outside the jury room is not. Nor is the outrage of many people. Some African-Americans, and others, have said they see Zimmerman’s acquittal as symbolic; that although Zimmerman is Hispanic, justice will not be done when an African-American is the victim of a white actor; that a young African-American male does not enjoy the same freedom to walk through an American neighborhood unnoticed, and unprofiled, as does his white counterpart; and that race and gender continue to play a defining role in the civil rights to which young African-American men are entitled.
In the wake of Zimmerman’s acquittal, some African-American parents have said that they are counseling their teenage children that they need to exercise care; that they must behave differently than white teenagers when outside their neighborhoods, simply because their race creates suspicion of criminal activity in the minds of some people. They are profiled, in other words, and it’s despicable. Worse, it is a dangerous practice that tends to place children, and others, in harm’s way.
Was the confrontation between Zimmerman and Martin racially motivated? No one knows, and the only evidence that dealt with race was the 911 tape recording in which Zimmerman, sometime into his odyssey, identified Martin to a 911 operator as “looking black,” and later, when the first confrontation occurred, he voiced a positive identification of Martin as “black.”
Those who think there is value in remembering and discussing this tragedy are correct. It should not be forgotten, and it impacts more than the actors who participated and the Sanford, Fla., community. Martin was a young African-American male, walking in a neighborhood where he had every right to walk. He was a visitor and he was not known to Zimmerman, who was a member of the neighborhood watch. There had been break-ins and, according to the 911 tape, Zimmerman thought Martin to be a “real suspicious guy,” looking like he was “up to no good.”
Was this because he was black? Was Martin seen by Zimmerman differently than a white teen would have been that night merely because of race? Did he ultimately die because his race created the suspicion that led to the fatal confrontation? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, that’s simply wrong and there should be outrage, not because of the acquittal but because Martin’s race made him a target.
The benefit that can come from this tragedy is a national discussion that creates the beginning of the end of the sort of racial discrimination that is profiling. Profiling a person based on race, and making a determination that a person of a certain race is more likely to engage in a crime than a person of another race, is a prejudice and it’s wrong. It’s harmful; it’s hurtful.
The public dialogue that follows this trial may serve to expose this issue and educate those who don’t or won’t get it that race is not an indicator of participation in criminal activity. We should not need to counsel our children to tread lightly because of race, and we are hopeful that soon the need to do so will become obsolete.
Jim Astrachan and Elizabeth Kameen are attorneys in Baltimore. They are members of The Daily Record’s independent Editorial Advisory Board, but this column represents their personal views and not those of the board or any other entity.