The Case of Trayvon Martin: Is Racism or the Law to Blame?

You may have already heard about this tragic case. In case you have not, here are the facts.

On the evening of February 26th, George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old Hispanic man and neighborhood watch member, dialed 911 when he observed 17-year-old African-American Trayvon Martin walking to his father’s girlfriend’s residence, where Martin was staying. Zimmerman frequently called the local Sanford police to make them aware of “suspicious” people, and even went door-to-door warning neighbors to look out for black youths. According to the 911 call, Zimmerman thought Martin was on drugs, staring at houses and possibly had something tucked into his pants. The 911 operator informed Zimmerman that a police officer was on the way, at which point Zimmerman bemoaned the fact that the “suspicious” people he called in “always get away.” Zimmerman initially agreed to meet the police near some mailboxes, but quickly decided to follow Martin on his own. The 911 operator advised Zimmerman not to do that, but did not object when Zimmerman asked if the police could just simply call him when they arrived rather than meet him somewhere.

Details after that are sketchy. Witnesses have told the media they saw Zimmerman and Martin wrestling on the ground, and at one point Martin had Zimmerman underneath him. Austin McLendon, 13, observed Zimmerman and Martin after they had separated while he was walking their dog. There was a gunshot, followed by someone screaming for help, followed by another shot, after which the screaming stopped. The gunshots and screaming can be heard on a 911 call from a woman whose backyard Zimmerman and Martin had been wrestling on. According to police, Zimmerman claims he was the one pleading for help, while some residents in the neighborhood believe it was Martin.

When residents and the police finally came out to see the aftermath, Martin was dead. Zimmerman, who is licensed to carry a concealed firearm, placed his handgun on the ground and immediately claimed self-defense. Martin had been unarmed, having only a bottle of iced tea and some candy he had purchased at the convenience store. Zimmerman has never been arrested, much less charged with any crime.

The injustice is obvious. A 28-year-old man carrying a gun kills an unarmed teen due to racial profiling, cites self-defense and never spends a second in handcuffs. How can this happen?

Some people cite racist law enforcement as the primary factor, and there is a history of that in Sanford. In 2005, two security guards with connections to the police department shot and killed a black teenager in the back, claimed self-defense and the court dismissed all charges. Last year, police refused to prosecute the son of a police lieutenant caught assaulting an innocent black homeless man, and only after the video generated outrage on the Internet did the police arrest the lieutenant’s son. Consequently, the Sanford police chief at the time stood down.

There is also evidence indicating the Sanford police have mishandled the investigation into the Martin killing. When Zimmerman told police he had nothing of his record (a lie), the police took him at his word. When a resident claimed that Martin had been crying for help before he was killed, the police “corrected” her because they were going off Zimmerman’s account. Since then, the resident, Mary Cutcher, has come out publicly with neighbor Selma Mora Lamilla to say that they do not believe it was self-defense and that, despite attempts to go into detail with police, have been ignored by law enforcement.

The Sanford police have clearly mismanaged this case and, given recent history, it is reasonable to presume that racism is rife within the local law enforcement agencies. Still, racism alone cannot take the whole blame for what is keeping George Zimmerman away from jail or a judge. The biggest obstacle to justice is, ironically, the law.

Florida is one of a number of states to have a “Stand Your Ground” law. Many people are familiar with the Castle Doctrine, which holds that people are under no obligation to retreat if someone enters their home because “a man’s home is his castle.” Therefore, if someone intrudes into your home and you have reasonable cause to believe that your life is in danger or the intruder will do some form of grievous harm to you, you are within your rights to defend yourself – with lethal force, if necessary.

What “Stand Your Ground” does is it takes the Castle Doctrine and does not apply it only to your home or your car, but anywhere where you have a right to be – a street, a sidewalk, etc. If someone attacks you, you have no duty to flee. You can fight back and, if you think you might be killed or seriously injured, you can use lethal force as well.

Of course, you might expect that you would have to prove in a court of law at some point that your use of lethal force was lawful. Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, however, states that people who kill in self-defense are immune from prosecution – meaning that no criminal or civil charges can be filed, ostensibly to prevent loved ones of the victim from getting revenge through court costs or legal damages. For them to arrest you, the police need “probable cause” to believe you inappropriately used lethal force. The burden of proof is on the prosecution to prove murder rather than one the defendant to prove self-defense.

Many critics of how the case has been handled argue that the Sanford police have “probable cause” to arrest Zimmerman and the only thing holding them back is racial bias. While I am no legal expert, I do not think this is strictly true. The Sanford police may be racially biased, but I think even if local law enforcement was eager to throw the book at Zimmerman, they would have, at best, an uphill battle overcoming Stand Your Ground.

Let us go over some of the circumstantial evidence available to prosecutors, from strongest to weakest:

“Cutcher and Mora Lamilla both insist the voice they heard screaming for help belonged to Travyon Martin, not George Zimmerman.” While the police were obviously wrong to “correct” Cutcher, it is still the word of two indirect witnesses versus one direct witness (Zimmerman). I think this testimony might be sufficient enough for police to have “probable cause” at a stretch, but I fail to see how it gives the police, the judge or a jury adequate reason not to give Zimmerman the benefit of the doubt since it boils down to “He Said versus She Said/She Said.” Given the strength of Stand Your Ground, I am skeptical that Zimmerman’s claim could be overturned based on the inference of two people who were not actually there. Sadly, there are only two people who definitively know what transpired, and one of them is dead.

“The screaming for help stopped when the second shot went off, killing Martin, so it must have been Martin screaming for help, in which case he was not assaulting Zimmerman.” Zimmerman says he was screaming for help, and I would presume he would say that he stopped screaming after the second shot because Martin was no longer a “threat.” As absurd as it sounds that a grown man would be crying shrilly for help because a teenager was kicking his butt, the fact that Zimmerman was getting his butt kicked is element of this where there is some direct corroborating evidence (see below).

“Zimmerman fired a ‘warning shot’ to scare Martin, yet decided to shoot Martin anyway.” The idea that the first shot was a “warning shot” is based on speculation by one of the lawyers employed by Martin’s parents. It is unknown, to my knowledge, how Zimmerman has explained the first shot (if at all), but it is entirely conceivable that he could chalk it up to a struggle for the gun, a missed shot meant to kill, etc.

“The 911 call shows Zimmerman started a fight with Martin, so if anyone was acting in self-defense, Martin was.” Zimmerman claims Martin started the fight with him and so far his account is all we have. On the 911 call, Zimmerman indicates he is following Martin, but that is all. Zimmerman could say that he approached Martin politely with a tap on the shoulder and Martin attacked; or that Martin, despite initially walking away when Zimmerman started following him, turned on his heels and began an assault. As absurd as either scenario sounds, again, Zimmerman’s account is the only one who started the fight.

“It is ludicrous that a 17-year-old teenager could seriously harm a 28-year-old man.” Agreed, but this is one of the few areas where witnesses support Zimmerman. Witnesses have said that Martin was on top of Martin at one point, and when police arrived on the scene, Zimmerman had a bloodied nose and head plus grass stains all over his clothes. Besides, Stand Your Ground does not require that one take weight and age into consideration. All Zimmerman had to do was “reasonably” believe Martin meant to seriously injure him, and that is all his appeal to self-defense needs.

While it would be easy for Zimmerman or his defense attorney to tear holes into the above arguments for why it wasn’t self-defense as I just did, it would be considerably more difficult for Zimmerman or his lawyer to actually persuade a jury or a judge that it was rational to perceive Martin as a genuine threat. Yet with the law so biased in favor of someone claiming self-defense, Stand Your Ground ensures neither Zimmerman nor his lawyer will have to make that case.

Please, be aware that I am not defending either Zimmerman or the Sanford cops. Like most people two neurons, I recognized this case right away as a would-be Judge Dredd racially profiling a black kid, getting into a situation he was not trained to handle and killing the black kid because the kid was beating him up. And I also do not doubt for a moment that if this had been a case of an ethnic minority killing a white person under similar circumstances, the law would likely magically “bend” in ways it has not for Zimmerman.

Still, the underlying point is this: Stand Your Ground laws protect aspiring Wild West vigilantes like George Zimmerman, racist cops or not.

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