How did the second-degree murder trial of so-called “white Hispanic” George Zimmerman for the killing of black teenager Trayvon Martin become national news that, some are saying, could result in riots if he is found not guilty? And who would be at fault if that happens?
While the verdict remains unknown, at least as of this writing, there are a few things worth saying about it, some of which are independent of whatever verdict is handed down. (And assuming the jury isn’t deadlocked, which is always an option in any complex case.)
But this case’s complexity, which is very real, doesn’t derive from the evidence presented in court. Legal analysts without any axe to grind seem nearly unanimous that, regardless of any actual culpability on Zimmerman’s part, the prosecution has woefully failed to prove his guilt in court to the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard required by the law.
In fact, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who is no conservative, was extremely critical of the decision to bring charges in the first place (a state prosecutor brought them on her own after a local prosecutor declined to bring them to a grand jury).
And just this week, he said that if he were on the jury, he would support a “not guilty” verdict because the standard of proof had not been met. Others have called the state’s presentation of its case using more descriptive terms, ranging from “inadequate” to “incompetent.”
The defense, on the other hand, has presented a consistent picture, supported with significant physical evidence and the testimony of many witnesses, that Zimmerman’s claim that he was assaulted by Martin and killed him in self-defense appears highly credible.
Yet, none of that is a reliable prediction of how the six-person, all-woman jury will rule on Zimmerman’s fate. Having once served as the foreman of a jury in a murder case myself, I can say from personal experience that what happens in the jury room can take on a rationale all its own, with some jurors reaching conclusions from their take on the evidence that seem utterly mistaken on the part of other jurors.
So, there will be no predictions in this column on that judgment. The complexities that will be addressed here fall instead into social and political categories.
Let’s start with how atypical this case actually is. If we were to believe the image presented by the major media and by certain people presenting themselves as “spokesmen for the black community,” black Americans are the major victims of lethal attacks committed by whites (assuming Zimmerman, who is half Hispanic and identifies himself with that term, fits the Caucasian category).
But that is not the case at all. According to the federal Bureau of Crime Statistics, in a report focusing on how national homicide rates have fallen in the past three decades by more than two-thirds, the relevant portion notes: “Most murders (over that period) were intraracial. From 1980 through 2008, 84 percent of white homicide victims were murdered by whites and 93 percent of black victims were murdered by blacks.
“During this same period, blacks were disproportionately represented among homicide victims and offenders. Blacks were six times more likely than whites to be homicide victims and seven times more likely than whites to commit homicide.”
When it comes to actual numbers, 2010 statistics reported by the FBI (“Expanded Homicide Table 6” at www.fbi.gov) revealed there were 3,327 whites murdered that year, of whom 2,777 were murdered by other whites, 447 were murdered by blacks and 103 were victims of “other races.”
Among African-Americans (who comprise about 13 percent of the population), there were 2,720 murders, with 218 committed by whites, 2,459 committed by other blacks, and 53 by “other races.” (In both cases, the “other races” category includes perpetrators whose race was unknown.)
So the Zimmerman case, said by some to be newsworthy because it is so typical, is in fact utterly atypical, representing less than 3 percent of total murders among blacks and whites.
Meanwhile, over the 4th of July weekend in Chicago alone, there were 11 homicides, all with black victims, and none with a so-far-reported white perpetrator.
Why do those homicides, and so many others, gain little or no national attention while the Zimmerman case dominates the evening news?
Perhaps, as we are often told, the news worth covering is that which is unusual, out of the ordinary. If that’s the definition, then the coverage is understandable.
But then, why are we never directly told it is an extraordinary case, far from the norm of crimes with black victims?
The Rev. Al Sharpton, found guilty of libeling a white New York district attorney in the Tawana Brawley case of alleged rape, is now an MSNBC talk-show host who has led rallies in support of the prosecution in the case, actively calling for Zimmerman’s conviction as a matter of “justice.”
And the Rev. Jesse Jackson told a March 24 rally in Sanford, Fla., where Martin was killed by Zimmerman, that “Trayvon is martyr, he’s not coming back, he’s a martyr, murdered and martyred. Now we must illuminate the darkness with the light that comes from the martyr.”
And two days earlier, Jackson had told the Los Angeles Times that “blacks are under attack,” adding that “targeting, arresting, convicting blacks and ultimately killing us is big business.”
Indeed, the president the United States has spoken out in a similar vein, saying that “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon” and adding, “And when I think about this boy, I think about my own kids. And I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this, and that everybody pulls together — federal, state and local — to figure out exactly how this tragedy happened.”
But isn’t it also likely that many of the Chicago murder victims last weekend also might look like Obama’s children, and that their slayings were equally as heinous as Obama apparently believes Trayvon Martin’s was?
And how was the potential jury pool influenced by such statements by the nation’s most prominent and powerful elected official?
So among people commonly hailed as spokesmen for the minority community, the Zimmerman case is being described as typical, not unusual at all — and thus worthy of special attention because in its typicality it can stand for many similar events?
This is not only untrue, it is extremely irresponsible and dangerous, as it has established an atmosphere in which the possibility of violence, should Zimmerman be found not guilty, is reportedly very high.
In fact, the Broward County Sheriff’s Office has prepared a video asking residents to “raise your voices, not your hands,” in the event of a “not guilty” verdict.
Can anyone help but think that such measures would not be necessary if this case had not become a cause celebre among those willing to stir up racial disharmony for their own advantage, no matter what the facts of the matter turn out to be?
And, if Zimmerman is found not guilty, will not the statements assuming his guilt make him a target for vengeance from some of those who have been told that only his conviction will produce “justice”?
But the thumb on the scales of justice may be even heavier than that:
The conservative activist group Judicial Watch reported this week that it has received documents showing that the Justice Department’s Conflict Resolution Service, whose mission is to tamp down community unrest, instead spent several thousand dollars of taxpayer funds when it was “deployed to Sanford, Fla., to organize and manage rallies against Zimmerman” before formal charges were brought against Zimmerman.
The rallies brought pressure on local officials that resulted in the dismissal of the city’s police chief, Bill Lee, over his presumed lack of action in the case, a Judicial Watch spokesman said.
Lee told a CNN reporter this week that “he felt pressure from city officials to arrest Zimmerman to placate the public rather than as a matter of justice.
“It was (relayed) to me that they just wanted an arrest. They didn’t care if it got dismissed later,” he said. “You don’t do that.”
Regarding the rallies, Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said, “These documents detail the extraordinary intervention by the Justice Department in the pressure campaign leading to the prosecution of George Zimmerman. My guess is that most Americans would rightly object to taxpayers paying government employees to help organize racially charged demonstrations.”
That conclusion is not only probably accurate, it would seem to be greatly understated.
Again, we cannot prejudge this case. But the threat to our sometimes precarious racial harmony is vastly heightened by the way it has been presented in the media.
And worse yet, Zimmerman’s right to the presumption of innocence — and perhaps his physical well-being for the rest of his life — has been jeopardized by the way this case has been cast by prominent people.
Including the president of the United States.
M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a free-lance writer and speaker. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org