George Zimmerman was acquitted last night of both second degree murder and manslaughter charges in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin on Feb 26, 2012. Background on the case, as well as a timeline of events leading up to the shooting, statements made by Zimmerman, witness accounts, and the initial police report may be found here, here and here.
In the sixteen months since Martin was killed, the case has become the centerpiece of debates over racial profiling, self-defense and equal justice in the United States. Saturday’s verdict, while bringing an end to the case of the State of Florida v. George M. Zimmerman, will not bring an end to those discussions. George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, but under of Florida law and by decision of a jury of his peers, he did not murder Martin, he shot him in self-defense.
Florida’s self-defense statue (§776.013(3)) reads as follows:
A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.
Thus, the jury in this case could have found fault with Zimmerman for starting the altercation with Martin by getting out of his car and following Martin (which was legal to do in FL), yet still found him not guilty of second degree murder, or of the lesser charge of manslaughter, which in Florida is a killing that has no legal justification. Essentially, if the jurors believed that once a fight between Zimmerman and Martin began – regardless of who provoked it – if Zimmerman reasonably feared he would suffer grave bodily harm, then he reasonably acted in self-defense.
The 6 jurors who decided this case have thus far declined to speak to the media about whether this was in fact their reasoning, but under the law, their decision was sound. Both George Zimmerman and the Martin family received their day in court.
The Martin family, while expressing understandable disappointment in the outcome, has accepted the verdict. The family of the young man who was killed that night in February as he walked back to the home of his father’s fiance, which was in the same gated town home complex in which George Zimmerman lived, has all along advocated not violence, but justice and peace, and they have done so with remarkable dignity and grace in the face of a heartbreaking situation.
There have indeed been peaceful protests and calls for a federal civil rights prosecution, but no violent riots reminiscent of those following the acquittal of Los Angeles Police Department officers in the beating of Rodney King in 1992. In fact, an expectation of violence from the black community, when a review of American history will show that violent race riots have been used by white Americans against black Americans far more often than the opposite, shows an inherent racial bias by those who harbor that expectation and have even stoked the flames of it. Isolating a few statements by radical individuals on social media to build a case for racial “thuggery” is race-baiting and fear-mongering at its worst. In fact, it plays into the same elements of racial profiling and stereotypes that have underscored this case from the beginning.
White people are afraid of a black man in the dark, even when he’s not doing anything wrong. I will admit that I am one of those people. As was discussed ad nauseum in the recent Paula Deen situation, “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.” I am a white woman who will admit to being afraid of a black man in the dark, but I am not a person who would assume that a black teenager walking in my neighborhood after dark did not have a right to be there. I am not a person who would automatically think that he was a “fucking punk” or one of many “assholes” who “always gets away.” I would be afraid, but if he wasn’t bothering me, my fear would cause me to walk the other way. If there had been recent break-ins in my neighborhood, I may have called the police to report him. Under no circumstances would I have approached him. I am ashamed of my inherent fear of “the other,” but to deny it would be to lie about basic truths of human nature.
The problem, other than what is in our hearts, is when our laws are crafted in such a way that a man can legally pursue a teenager in the dark, a teenager who is minding his own business and is in a place that he has every right to be – six houses away from where he was staying for the week – and shoot him during an altercation, claiming self-defense. The problem is when our laws are crafted in such a way that anyone can start a fight and then claim self-defense. The problem is when our laws are crafted in such a way that the best way to ensure that you are not convicted of murder or manslaughter is to make sure that your opponent ends up not just bested, but dead. The problem is when a person’s inherent racial bias, which causes him to profile a young man in the dark, is known to be wrong but is guaranteed to be discounted because of the broad nature of certain laws.
It is time to change the laws.
Amy Lazenby is the associate opinion editor at FITSNews. She is a wife, mother of three and small business owner with her husband who splits her time between South Carolina and Georgia. Follow her on Twitter @Mrs_Laz or email her at [email protected].