I'm completely baffled by the jury's decision of "not guilty" in the trial over George Zimmerman's murder of Trayvon Martin. I thought second degree was a tough sell, not because it wasn't realistict, but because the lack of the kinds of evidence courts typically require to prove guilt. In theory, the court system fluctuates between models of due process and control. In the model of due process, the burden is on the state to prove the defendant guilty. That's why the verdict is not guilty rather than innocent. That's also why I thought second degree murder would be difficult.
While I'm not surprise about the second degree charge, I was expecting the jury to find Zimmerman guilty of manslaughter. I'm really shocked on that one. I read in other places that lawyers in other states are shocked at what Florida's "Stand your Ground" law allows. As long as the defendent claims self defense, the prosecution has to prove it wasn't self-defense. Since the only other witness to the event (Trayvon Martin) is dead, there is no eyewitness to verify or challenge Zimmerman's defenses (and their inconsistencies). Since people with money (Zimmerman was bringing in through online sites tens of thousands of dollars to pay for his legal fees) benefit from a criminal justice model more akin to the due process one, the burden is on the prosecution. This poses a huge hurdle, and helps explain Zimmerman's verdict. If jury members are doing their job correctly and making their decision based on their honest understanding of the law, this can lead to a not-guilty verdict. That's because it becomes the prosecution's ability to prove Zimmerman was not acting in self-defense that becomes the key point upon which the argument revolves and the judge and jury act. Usually justice is not this way. Typically it's much more of a crime control model--swift, severe and certain punishment. Innocent people might be found guilty, but fewer guilty people will roam free. Sit in a court on a typical day and you'll see plenty of mostly poor, Black and brown men and women in on a range of drug related and gun charges. Zimmerman certainly didn't have to deal with this model of justice. My guess is that the jury's verdict was significantly affected by how Trayvon Martin was constructed in the immediate aftermath of the murder and in lead-up to the court case. Without any Black men or women on the jury, buying into the construction of Trayvon as a one-dimensional, stereotypical thuggish kid without a future becomes much more easy and reinforces the need of not just evidence, but overwhelming evidence that Zimmerman's acts were not justified as self defense. Black kids and young Black men and women don't typically receive this type of treatment when they're the defendants. Nor do they when they're the prosecution.
Despite all this though, what I keep thinking is that didn't Zimmerman first spot Trayvon and then start to follow him? Isn't that basically stalking? And, regardless of Trayvon's reaction, couldn't lots of reactions be seen as self-defense? If someone told me that they were being followed by someone, I think a range of reactions would be justified. They could either run away, try to be chill as if nothing was happening, or turn and confront the person. All of these seem like sensible responses to me. If so, then are these responses defensible as "Standing Your Ground"? Despite the specifics of his reaction, couldn't Trayvon have been standing his ground and defending himself from an unknown assailant who was following him? Think about it. He was a 17-year old kid. Most of us have been 17 and know what it was like for us and our friends. I think if it were me, at 17, and I thought some guy was following me, I would've run. Stranger danger (but not the kiddie version). I was also kind of a woose back then. But, I definitely had friends who would have said something. If there were more than two of them, it certainly could become physical, but not in a life-threatening way. Unless, of course, one carried certain stereotypes and assumptions about the guys I was hanging with, read too much into the situation, and overreacted. So, again. Didn't Zimmerman see Trayvon, thought he looked suspicious and decided to follow him through this communal property that he felt the need to patrol (and that Trayvon had every right to be on given that his father's girlfriend lived there as well)? Given this situation, doesn't whatever Trayvon's reaction was that evening equate to standing his ground in self-defense? In fact, one of the witnesses for the prosecution and who was on the phone with Trayvon when all this was going down noted that he said some "crazy cracker" or something like that was following him. Doesn't that kind of negate Zimmerman's defense? How could he claim self defense if he was the one who started it by stalking Trayvon in the first place? He profiled Trayvon (who deserved to be on that property just as much as Zimmerman) and decided to follow him. He was nervous and probably scared because of the type of person he assumed Trayvon was and he over-reacted in all that followed. He was found not guilty of murder because he claimed he was defending himself. But he was supposedly defending himself from a situation that he actively put himself into in the first place. Further, it seems conceivable to me that the person he killed could have reacted in any number of justifiably defensive ways, including physical and that these could be seen as self-defense from a guy who for some reason is following him. For me I think fight of flight might kick in. Flight and I'd be the fastest runner you've ever seen, hopping over fences like a natural. Fight and I'd be berserker-punching, biting, scratching, gouging, everything. Either reaction is possible since I'd feel for my personal safety.
While Zimmerman identifies as Hispanic (and I would have categorized him as such), in my eyes he was clearly constructed as different from Trayvon and his parents, and therefore benefitted by being located nearer to the white side of the socially constructed racial spectrum. Usually, we see the criminal justice system function to incarcerate young Black men and kids who are the defendants. Here, we see how the system suddenly works in its ideal fashion (innocent until proven guilty) when the prosecution represents a Black person and the defendant is not. Two sides of institutionalized racism and the courts.