In what was another sterling example of how the law and justice are sometimes not the same thing, last night's verdict in the George Zimmerman trial found the would-be neighbourhood watch enforcer not guilty of second degree murder against teenager Treyvon Martin. To some, it will seem like Zimmerman got away with murder, to others it's a vindication of Zimmerman and his "second amendment rights," a man unfairly pilloried due to a misunderstanding. The truth, as usual, is somewhere inbetween, but one thing is undeniable, if George Zimmerman wasn't walking around armed like some kind of urban cowboy cop wannabe, Treyvon Martin would have celebrated his 18th birthday this past February.
One of the frequently occurring notions on Twitter last night was that if the roles were reversed, and if Martin were on trial for killing Zimmerman, then a guilty-verdict would have been a foregone conclusion. That is probably true. In an example of racial bias far worse than anything Paula Deen ever said, prison sentences in the U.S. tend to be harsher on African-Americans. A study released earlier this year by the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that prison sentences handed out to black men in the past seven years have been almost 20 per cent longer than sentences given to white men for the same crimes. A group called The Sentencing Project notes that 60 per cent, three-fifths, of the people in prison are people of racial and ethnic minorities, and that 1 in 10 black males in their 30s currently sit in a prison cell. I know that Zimmerman is mixed-race, but his name doesn't sound like it. And compounding that with the obvious racial bent to the case, and one can see how Zimmerman now finds himself a free man.
But race is just part of the equation here. What's more pressing to me, at least in the wake of repeated gun tragedies in the U.S. since the shooting death of Treyvon Martin, is that this verdict is likely to vindicate those that want a free flow of guns across America, and not encourage anyone to do anything to change that. It didn't turn out that way, but the Zimmerman trial (or the "State of Florida Vs Paul Blart Mal Cop," as Bill Maher put it the other night) should have been a test for "Stand Your Ground," a Florida law that says its okay for you to be armed and ready to respond when someone threatens you. The law spread rather quickly through the U.S. and was applied to many other states, but while the idea behind "Stand Your Ground" is sound - that you have the right to defend yourself - if Zimmerman is primary example, I find it unlikely that it's being followed according to that letter of the law.
Basically, the defense of Zimmerman hinged on the idea that a full-grown man couldn't over-power a skinny teenager without the distinct advantage of being armed. The full extent of their confrontation is unknown because there were no witnesses, but the forensics seem to indicate that Martin was on top of Zimmerman when Zimmerman shot him. Be that as it may, Zimmerman was acting under his own authority to pursue Martin, who was staying at one of the homes in the gated community of Twin Lakes and had gone out that night, famously, to a convenience store to buy an iced tea and Skittles. Zimmerman, somewhat frustrated by a series of crimes that had taken place in Twin Lakes, helped form a neighbourhood watch, and had called in to the Sanford, FL police a total of seven times in the two months leading up to the shooting of Martin, reporting suspicious activity in Twin Lakes.
On February 26 though, Zimmerman spotted Martin walking home and was concerned. "We've had some break-ins in my neighborhood, and there's a real suspicious guy," he told the police dispatcher saying that the man in question was "just walking around looking about" in the rain, and that, "This guy looks like he is up to no good or he is on drugs or something." How Zimmerman was able tell that Martin was on drugs on a dark rainy night while driving is unknown, but what was clear was that Martin was going to have to answer to Zimmerman. "[T]hese assholes, they always get away," he told the dispatcher.
Against the instructions of the police dispatcher, Zimmerman pursued Martin on foot. What happened between the time that Zimmerman hung up on the police and emergency responders appeared on scene is known only to Zimmerman, but let's say he's correct. Let's say that Trayvon Martin confronted Zimmerman, and let's say that Martin was the aggressor (even though the medical examiners report said that there seemed to be no evidence of offensive wounds), one could argue that Martin was "standing his ground," being followed by a suspicious armed man through the dark streets of a gated community at night. But that's not the way it was seen. Instead, the kid without the gun was the threat and a jury of his peers said that Zimmerman was justified in shooting the high schooler dead.
Which brings us back around to the idea of justice? Did Zimmerman deserve to go to jail for murder? It's debatable because I think he's telling the truth in that he thought he was in danger, but it was his idea in the first place to play "Cop" in a game of "Cops and Robbers" Martin knew nothing about, and unfortunately, in the United States, idiots who think like that are of the opinion that they should be armed and usually are. If there is "justice for Trayvon" it will be that Zimmerman will have a hard time feeling safe in public again. Should he ever decide to buy another firearm, he will surely be viewed with suspicion. And in America's growing minority community, Zimmerman will surely be a pariah. While others may feel that the legal system let Zimmerman slip through their grasp, Zimmerman is going to have a hard time reintegrating with the land of the lawful. Whether fair or not, legally-speaking or something more visceral, people are going to think he got away with murder, and the court of public opinion tends to be the harshest legal system of all. George Zimmerman was found not guilty, but he will never truly be free.