A ‘not guilty’ verdict for Zimmerman

George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the killing of black teenager Trayvon Martin triggered demonstrations in cities across the country.

What happened

George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the killing of black teenager Trayvon Martin triggered demonstrations in cities across the country this week, and sparked demands that the Department of Justice bring civil rights charges in the case. The six-woman Florida jury—five whites and one Hispanic—found Zimmerman not guilty of both second-degree murder and manslaughter last Saturday, after 16 hours of deliberations. Prosecutors had accused the 30-year-old neighborhood watch volunteer of being a wannabe cop who racially profiled the unarmed 17-year-old and provoked the fatal confrontation in a gated community in Sanford, Fla. Zimmerman insisted he shot Martin in self-defense after the teen attacked him. Defense attorney Mark O’Mara said Zimmerman was prosecuted only because of political pressure, and that if his client were black, he “never would have been charged with a crime.” Martin’s family was expected to file a civil lawsuit charging Zimmerman with wrongful death. “Even though I am brokenhearted,” said Trayvon’s father, Tracy Martin, “my faith is unshattered. I will always love my baby Tray.”

As thousands of protesters took to the streets in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and other cities, Attorney General Eric Holder said that his department would continue an ongoing civil rights investigation into the killing, which he called “tragic and unnecessary.” But legal experts said it would be difficult to prove Zimmerman killed Martin because he was black, making a civil rights case unlikely. In an interview, one juror identified only as B-37 said that the jury was initially divided, with two members voting for manslaughter and one for second-degree murder. Ultimately, she said, jurors decided that “George feared for his life” during his confrontation with Martin, and that Florida law dictated an acquittal.

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What the editorials said

“The state threw everything it had at Zimmerman,” said The Wall Street Journal. When the police and local prosecutors originally decided he’d acted in self-defense, a nationwide uproar led to the appointment of a special prosecutor, who charged Zimmerman with murder. President Obama added to the pressure for a conviction when he said that “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” Yet in the end, the jury gave Zimmerman a fair trial, even though he had become “a symbol of our polarized racial politics.”

The outcome surprised no one, said USA Today. But still the fact remains that Martin was doing nothing wrong that February night in 2012 when he walked home from a convenience store carrying ice tea and a bag of Skittles, and Zimmerman told cops he’d spotted a “f---ing punk” who looked “suspicious,” setting into motion a chain of events that left the teenager dead. The verdict may be legally justified, but it certainly isn’t “morally satisfying.”

What the columnists said

Expect more tragic killings like this until we’ve repealed “Stand Your Ground” laws in two dozen states, said Andrew Sullivan in Dish.AndrewSullivan.com. These laws encourage vigilantes to provoke confrontations, authorizing them to use lethal force if they believe their lives or safety are threatened, with no obligation to retreat. This trial has set a terrible precedent, said Charles P. Pierce in Esquire.com. Zimmerman’s acquittal has essentially given a hunting license to anyone who fears “f---ing punks, and kids who wear hoodies at night” in neighborhoods where “they don’t belong.”

This case was nothing but “a show trial” to satisfy race-baiters, said Jennifer Rubin in WashingtonPost.com, and the Justice Department should resist political pressure to stage a second one. Federal civil rights charges should be pursued only in rare, compelling cases where prosecutors or jurors have obviously ignored evidence of a hate crime. That’s certainly not the case here. Even the FBI concluded after its own investigation that there was “no evidence of racial motivation” in Zimmerman’s act of self-defense.

So was the verdict fair? asked Andrew Cohen in TheAtlantic.com. Millions of Americans are astonished that “you can go looking for trouble in Florida,” racially profile and shoot a young black man, and go free. But jurors can only act on the law and the evidence, which they did. Despite the attention sensational trials like this receive, they “never fully answer the larger societal questions they pose,” or “resolve the national debates they trigger.”

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