This column was to be written Saturday morning, quite a few hours before the somewhat stunning non-guilty verdict was announced in Sanford, Florida, thereby exonerating George Zimmerman of either second-degree murder or manslaughter in the homicide of Trayvon Martin.


Even now, four or so hours post-decision as I start to write, I’m still letting this sink in for a moment, as I am not so much shocked by the verdict itself (anything can and does happen in jury trials) but still reeling at the seeming finality of it and everything that preceded it.


What preceded it, of course, was Zimmerman’s fatal shooting of seventeen-year-old Martin on the evening of Sunday, February 26, 2012 in a community known as Retreat at Twin Lakes in the Central Florida town of Sanford. Of course, that was just the beginning of the story, tragic as it was.


You see, tragic as that was – whether you think it was a justifiable homicide committed in self-defense, a willful, malicious act worthy of second-degree murder, or a conscious action that would merit a manslaughter conviction – there were probably dozens of more sinister acts committed in America that weekend. I don’t say that to minimize what happened; I abhor violence, and…not to bury the lead…feel that Zimmerman’s actions merited at least a manslaughter conviction. But, the verdict – in all its finality ­­­­­– is not the source of my greatest outrage.


If you can, think back to a time before Zimmerman, Martin, their families and a host of others – a disparate array of folks arranged alphabetically including Benjamin Crump, Bernie de la Rionda, John Guy, Rachel Jeantel, Sandra Nelson, Mark O’Mara and Don West – became household names. Perhaps, like me, at the time you hadn’t even heard of Sanford, Florida or a law commonly known as “Stand Your Ground.”


As I recall, within a week or two after the shooting, there was a petition on calling attention to the fact that George Zimmerman was not even arrested and, apparently, there would be no charges filed and no trial. A 28-year-old man fatally shot a 17-year-old young man who was armed with only a beverage (an iced tea) and a snack (Skittles) while apparently returning to his dad’s condo after a trip to the convenience store.


While we’ve learned that there was a little more complexity to it than just that, almost a full seventeen months later, I find myself asking some of the same questions and still feeling a lot of the same outrage that I opined about at that time. Trying to tone down my language, I still ask: How the heck, in 2013 America, can anybody of any age, color or ethnicity fatally shoot an unarmed person (of any age, color or ethnicity) outside of his home and not be apprehended and awaiting a trial? Can anybody reasonably defend that?


Whether it was owed to incompetence, corruption, racism of a sort or fear of not being able to effectively prosecute against laws such as Stand Your Ground, the Sanford Police Department (and powers that be) made a decision that was gutless, insensitive and especially incendiary to many, especially African-Americans who have long felt both profiled and subject to unequal justice in the courtroom.


Unless you were living in a parallel universe over the last year or so, you know that this incident became the perfect storm and an ideal story for journalists (I use that term loosely) and bloggers to do with it what they might. Let’s face it: Violence, racial conflict and sex sell more than anything else, and this story had two of those required elements. It was also, potentially, an interesting case study about the increasing parameters of self-defense in certain states. Oh yes, it kind of fed into the whole gun control issue and also came during an election year when partisan lines were already ratcheted up.


A quick observation that is not tangential to this discussion– at least in my mind. The United States is a wonderful country, capable of extraordinary unity in times of crisis. We have also never come close to ushering in a post-racial society in meaningful ways, and seem to divide, fracture and cripple ourselves repeatedly, with tragic consequences.


My accusatory finger is not simply pointed at one side; there is a lot of blame to go around. In the year or so it took to bring this case to trial, there were many exaggerations, distortions and outright lies that kept aspects of this story alive. Many “news” and opinion sources continued (somewhat predictably, if sadly) to play to their bases and off of their baser instincts. When did that start and when will that end. Rhetorical, for now.


What could have been a great opportunity to discuss some of the legal and societal issues surrounding this case with sensitivity and intelligence devolved into lowest common denominator journalism. Again and again and again. By the time the trial eventually started, I would venture to say that the great majority of those who watched and followed the proceedings  already had their minds made up and were simply rooting for their respective team. Can I promise you (beyond a reasonable doubt) that I was not a member of that great majority who had a rooting interest? I would assert that as I watched the trial, I was still trying to ascertain what really happened to provoke, exacerbate and fatally end some kind of struggle between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. Almost 17 months after the shooting, I still don’t presume to have all the answers.


The tragedies in this case are many, starting with the obvious one; my persistent take is that I have seen no reasonable evidence that warranted George Zimmerman killing Trayvon Martin. This suggests a question that I have discussed (without necessarily a satisfactory conclusion) in the last week or so.


To both ask and answer this question, please consider that I am posing and attempting to answer this with respect to all similar cases. (By similar, I do not mean this in terms of controversy and notoriety.)  My question is as follows. One of the main tenets of our judicial system is that the defendant in any criminal case is presumed to be innocent. It is the prosecution’s burden to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. I agree with this, and would not change this.


Here comes a but. But…what about a case like this where there is no doubt – reasonable or otherwise – about the act that was committed?  In this case, nobody disputes that Zimmerman committed homicide against an unarmed young man. Given that fact, isn’t there legally, morally and practically some shift in burden to the defense to prove that the homicide was justifiable. I would say that in these cases, the defense should have to prove that it was justifiable (by reason of self-defense) by a preponderance of the evidence. This is especially so when there are no other true (living) witnesses to the shooting.


To paraphrase the prosecution, in this incident, there were only two witnesses: one is dead, and the other is a liar. While labeling Zimmerman a liar may seem a bit unfair, that is essentially the truth of the situation. For the most part, nobody (other than Zimmerman) was there to see how the physical conflict started and how it escalated or even how it ended – other than the result. In that respect, we kind of know what we know, and then piece together with help of forensics (not entirely helpful), experience and the biases (however noble or common) we bring with us.


In a nutshell, while Zimmerman was not compelled to testify on his own behalf (and one can’t fault him for exercising his Fifth Amendment rights), he, in effect, testified via his police interrogation (I use that term very loosely as I think that the Sanford PD barely went through the motions with him), his next day walk-through, and his interview with Sean Hannity. Even in these settings where he was not subject to sharp cross-examination, the least one could expect from the defendant would be consistency – although consistency alone, if lying, is not enough to convince me that he shot Martin out of reasonable fear of death or great bodily harm.


In an even briefer nutshell than the preceding paragraph, I would say that in these interviews, Zimmerman had a host of inconsistencies and assertions that simply were not believable. The dialogue he ascribed to Trayvon did not ring true nor did his stories about being ambushed and reaching for his cell phone. And yes, I simply don’t think that the man with the gun, who was somewhat prepared for a confrontation, would be screaming continually for 30-plus seconds, and then instantaneously draw his gun, fire one shot and (not knowing, in his own testimony, that Martin was hit) and suddenly the screaming ceases. This is just one of many points that contradicted (to my eyes and ears) his claims of self-defense.


My best guess is that Zimmerman left his vehicle to apprehend Martin until the police came – to keep the “suspect” from getting away. Not only was this stupid, but he had no cause and no authority to do this. I don’t believe that he went out there to kill Trayvon, although there is no way to disprove this. I do believe that by his assumptions and actions that a young man died much too soon, and without any justification.


In saying this, I do have some sympathy for Zimmerman, even if I think that the prosecution (which in some respects did a mediocre job with a tricky case, until their strong closing arguments) did enough to put him behind bars for manslaughter, if not second-degree murder. So, why the sympathy? George Zimmerman came off as a misguided vigilante who was beyond reckless; he exhibited horrible and cruel judgments. But, did he deserve to be (arguably) the most hated man in America? He is not the devil incarnate nor was this a dialectical clash of good versus evil.


For his part, we really do not know what reasonable choices Trayvon Martin had to make that fateful evening. An objective look into his past reveals that he was not a choirboy, but were any of his relatively minor transgressions even relevant to this incident? Is there any evidence that Martin was doing anything suspicious that warranted Zimmerman’s 9-1-1 call, let alone the great likelihood that the neighborhood watch captain pursued and harassed him in some fashion? Was there anything in either of their backgrounds to suggest that their first face-to-face meeting would result in such a tragedy?


And so, life…for most of us… goes on. To some, this case was simply entertainment; to others, it represented so much more. Trayvon Martin will, presumably. live on as a symbol, and my fervent hope is that the right lessons will be learned from this.


And George Zimmerman? It says here that he deserved to be prosecuted and convicted, but not demonized. Anybody who threatens him or his family in any way (other than the expected civil lawsuit) has none of my respect, sympathy or support. On the other hand, anybody who regards him as a hero is incredibly misguided and part of the biggest problem that surrounds this case.


This case was about so many issues but as these events usually do, it seemed to both highlight and exacerbate the racial divide that still fractures and destroys us. And after all of the media window dressing ceased to be a factor in the verdict, it should be noted that it was the defense that exploited the “race card” quite skillfully, and is still doing so in its post-case remarks.


So, where do we go from here? Did we learn anything from this case or simply use it to validate our viewpoints, suspicions and biases? Can anyone find anything to celebrate in this case? I’d love to find something,  but I am at a loss for how to do so.


Of course, most of us will eventually forget about this until the next big thing comes along. For better and for worse, that is what we do. Uniquely well.



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