Written by Phil Guarnieri Thursday, 25 July 2013 00:00
It’s a concept so indelibly stamped into the American Justice System, that its absence from jurisprudence would be as startling as if the Sun was plucked from the sky: A criminal defendant is innocent until proven guilty. The explosive but not unexpected reaction to the verdict of the six-women jury in Florida acquitting George Zimmerman in the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin has given rise to but another debate on burden of proof.
The racial mix, as it often does, proved as precarious as nitroglycerin. Florida’s “stand your ground” laws provided the basis for Zimmerman’s defense in the case. Zimmerman, despite a warning from the police to stand down, followed Martin within the complex he was patrolling, which led to a fight between the two. During the scuffle Zimmerman shot Martin in what he says was self-defense.
At first I was skeptical of Zimmerman’s claims; he ignored police in pursuing Martin and photos clearly showed that physically he was significantly the heftier of the two. The state was also skeptical and assembled a legal armada to prosecute him. With almost unprecedented vigor, local prosecutors were replaced with a special team from Jacksonville who proceeded, without sanction, to ignore their obligation to share exculpatory evidence with the defense. The judge presiding over the case allowed a manslaughter charge to be considered along with the second degree murder charge.
From the first drafts of the newspapers and commentaries from news programs, it appeared that Zimmerman was clearly in the wrong. But one cannot try defendants in the media. During the course of the investigation and subsequently the trial, more information surfaced and it was not difficult to see why the police took six weeks to arrest Zimmerman, a delay I had initially been very critical of. Only Zimmerman truly knows what happened that night and since the prosecution was not able to furnish eyewitnesses, the evidence began to lean strongly toward Zimmerman’s version of events, which he consistently described to police on numerous occasions with virtually no contradiction. True, he was impetuous when he neglected police warnings not to pursue the suspicious young man he spotted wandering in the complex. But that’s not a crime. And while one might be skeptical about Zimmerman stating that he only left his car to see a street sign so he could accurately report the direction Martin was heading, even though he had been patrolling the area for 3 years, a neighborhood watchman exiting his car is not a crime.
It was when he headed back to his car, now heeding the advice of police, that Zimmerman claims he was violently confronted by Martin seething over being followed. Screams resulting from the confrontation shattered the stillness of the night. It’s not definitive who was actually screaming for help. Nevertheless, the evidence seems to favor Zimmerman. Testimony in the trial revealed that Zimmerman really can’t fight, and Martin could. A witness identified as John, alerted by the screams, testified that he saw two men struggling with Martin on top. This would be consistent with the respective injuries of the two combatants: Other than the fatal gunshot wound, Martin was virtually unscathed save a slight abrasion on his hand that was probably inflicted by Martin pounding on Zimmerman who suffered a broken nose and bloody lacerations on the back of his head, injuries consistent with his testimony of having his head slammed on the pavement.
Meanwhile, Dr. Vincent DiMaio, perhaps the nation’s leading ballistic expert, testified that Martin’s gunshot wound was absolutely consistent with someone firing the gun in the position Zimmerman said he was in when Martin was battering him. Moreover, Zimmerman had passed a voice stress test, scientifically designed to indicate prevarication and untruthfulness, when relaying his version of events, which only adds to the veracity of his account. Nor was there anything in Zimmerman’s background (though hardly immaculate) that would indicate a racial animus toward African Americans. It’s the exact opposite. Zimmerman had grown up with African Americans as part of his household and had taken a black girl to his prom.
In light of the above, and the nature of Florida’s “stand your ground law,” a law that is similarly shared by at least 20 states, it’s hardly mystifying why it took the police 6 weeks to charge Zimmerman. Nor is it beyond the pale of belief, that if Zimmerman had been a black volunteer neighborhood watchman, with the same exact wounds, he would never have been charged in the first place. The press, generally abysmal and sensationally unseemly, was particularly egregious in reporting this case and they are responsible beforehand and after the verdict of seriously exacerbating racial tensions and polarizing the nation beginning with The New York Times first identifying Zimmerman as a “White Hispanic. It was race and not evidence that propelled this case into a national story.
The media had none of the dignity of Martin’s parents who behaved so honorably during this terrible ordeal. One cannot help but feel for their loss and their understandable belief that the verdict was a miscarriage of justice. Those feelings cannot, should not be denied or minimized. Zimmerman was clearly culpable in not following the directions of the police and his life and that of his family have been turned inside out ever since. He rightly fears for his life and those he loves who supported him. Poor judgment, however, does not constitute “beyond reasonable doubt” for a second-degree murder conviction no matter how tragic the circumstances surrounding this case was.
From the outset the reporting community, civil rights activists and opportunistic politicians seemed to be on a crusade to indict what they saw as the larger issues this case represented: Racial profiling and Stop and Frisk. Even after the verdict, their behavior was appalling and irresponsible, essentially charging that the jury’s decision gave license to whites to hunt down African Americans notwithstanding that 94 percent of violent crimes today against blacks are by blacks. To compare the Trayvon Martin shooting to the cold blooded killing of Emmett Till in 1955 is historical sacrilege, a hysterical defamation of common sense and a lie of monumental proportions.
Emblematic of this outrage was the despicable New York Daily News headline the day after the verdict listing Trayvon Martin with Emmet Till and other young black men who were truly the victims of monstrous racism to realize that much of the media saw this tragedy not as a case to be tried but an opportunity to be exploited. The state of race relations in America, relatively dormant in recent years, has been reignited with all the callousness of blowtorching an open gas tank. We’re much the worse for it.