What We Are Talking About When We Talk About Trayvon Martin



The trial of George Zimmerman, a neighborhood vigilante who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager who was walking back to his home after buying tea and Skittles at a convenience store, has gone to jury and there is no telling what the verdict will be. Most pundits and trial watchers feel the prosecution was less than convincing, particularly in proving that Zimmerman had intent or malice.

It seems that at any particular time we as a culture are following some Trial Of The Century or another. Part of this is the necessary consequence of having justice-themed news shows like Nancy Grace. The unquenchable maw of the newscycle demands fresh meat continuously. But Martin was not the photogenic blond victim that usually make the story line-up.

Kathleen Parker recently took a stab at why this trial in particular fascinates us.

The Zimmerman trial is riveting not because two men got in a scuffle and one of them died or because one was a teenager and the other an armed adult. It is that one was black, the supposed victim of a profiling vigilante, and the other white.

But that isn’t totally why the trial is news. It’s not that white guy shoots black punk, it’s what it took to get the case to be taken seriously. Most of the early outrage triggered by the descent of what some have called racebaiters was over how perfunctorily the initial investigation was. It wasn’t until the media storm started that the Barney Fife-ish Sanford Police Department took the case seriously. They knew who killed Trayvon Martin. They just didn’t think it was worth trying to send Zimmerman to jail over it. Arguably, second degree murder was publicity-driven over-reach, but Zimmerman didn’t even get charged with littering. The unknown hypothetical of whether it would have been treated differently if either party had been a different ethnicity is what set off the tinderbox.

As Juan Williams even-handedly puts it:

Liberal and conservative news TV and radio have played to the racial theme, too. The left, notably Rev. Al Sharpton, have made the case a crusade for racial justice. The right-wing media, especially talk radio, has responded by making Zimmerman a hero.

So what makes Zimmerman a hero to the right wing? That is a very complicated question. In part the trial is just as much about gun rights as it is about racial justice. This is the underdiscussed aspect of the left/right bifurcation on this trial. It comes down to the most loaded word in my typical formulation of the incident, ‘vigilante’. Just how culpable is Zimmerman for initiating the incident? He had a concealed carry permit and was within his rights to get out of his car and follow someone through open space despite the admonition of the emergency dispatcher not to. But there is always the fine line of having rights and the responsible exercise thereof.

Should Zimmerman have gotten out of the car in the first place? What did he mean by saying ‘Fucking punks. These assholes, they always get away’? Was it frustration over ineffective law enforcement in his neighborhood or was there racial animosity over ‘those’ people? Who struck the first blow? And does it matter?

Those biggest question the jury has to wrestle with seems to be: Was Zimmerman acting in self-defense? We will probably never know because Zimmerman has been verifiably less than truthful about that night. And the only other person who knows what happened is dead.

53 Responses

  1. I haven’t followed a trial since the OJ Simpson trial. That was the end of trial watching for me. I’ve pretty much avoided this one and have only read little bits and pieces without forming an opinion other than wondering about guns and the stand your ground laws as well as frustration that it’s become a political issue.

    I’m also worrying about what will happen when the verdict is announced. I’ve been through enough of those situations, albeit from a distance, to last a life time.

    Thanks for the post yello.


  2. Why is the race of the those involved important? If they are important, what are the races involved?


  3. “Those biggest question the jury has to wrestle with seems to be: Was Zimmerman acting in self-defense?”

    Do you even care? My assumption from the framing and your previous comments is that even if you accept Zimmerman’s story at face value, i.e. at the time he shot Martin he was on the ground being pounded into the concrete, you would still convict him of 2nd Degree murder because he was looking for trouble and “stalking an unarmed teenager”.


  4. jnc:

    you would still convict him of 2nd Degree murder because he was looking for trouble and “stalking an unarmed teenager”.

    You forgot black. Unarmed black teenager. That seems to be particularly relevant for some reason.


  5. That seems to be particularly relevant for some reason.

    Scott, have you ever been stopped for Walking While White? Believe it or not, racism is still very much alive and well in the US (and I’m not accusing you of racism–nothing that you have ever said has ever led me to believe that you are. . . simply that you don’t see far outside your own existence bubble).

    I don’t know if you’ve ever lived in the south, but yeah, it’s pretty overt there at times. I have lived there–North Carolina and Alabama–and it was eye-opening and a slap in the face.


  6. Also kind of interesting…ever notice that when a 17 year old male gets shot he is repeatedly referred to as a “teenager” but when laws are passed that require parental notification before providing an abortion to a 15 yr old they are repeatedly called restrictions on what “women” can do?


  7. Scott: mind-boggling. But then, I also found the OJ verdict mind-boggling. I suspect I wouldn’t be a good juror.


  8. yello:

    It wasn’t until the media storm started that the Barney Fife-ish Sanford Police Department took the case seriously. They knew who killed Trayvon Martin. They just didn’t think it was worth trying to send Zimmerman to jail over it.

    Three questions:

    1) What justifies your “Barney Fiife” characterization?

    2) how do you know what they thought?

    3) Why do you think it impossible that they either believed Zimmerman acted in self-defense and therefore didn’t deserve to get charged or they didn’t think they could convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that he was guilty of anything other than self-defense (which, we now know, they couldn’t)?


    • Mark:

      One talking head this morning was criticizing the special prosecutor in the Zimmerman trial for not taking it first to a grand jury, but taking it upon herself to indict. What is the protocol for convening a grand jury and how out of the ordinary was it that that one was not used in this case?


      • An employee of Florida’s State Attorney’s office, the IT director who testified that information was withheld from the Zimmerman defense team, has been fired.



      • Bypassing a GJ is not even possible in many states, Scott. I think this was a function of the FL Special Prosecutor law.

        ‘Goose, what I want you to take away from this is:

        that it is completely possible for an armed person to follow another one [and do it thinking the teenaged black boy in the hoodie is up to no good] and then be confronted, and then kill in self defense;

        that it is so consistent with the evidence here that the armed person did not set out to kill anyone – he called the police early on – that second degree murder was a complete overreach;

        that verdicts are not comments on what went on in the media but what was heard in the courtroom;

        and that the jury understood that “self-defense” was a defense to manslaughter as well as to murder [Scott, this is what I meant when I said the defense team would be prepared for lesser included].

        If you are on a jury and you hear forensics that the victim was shot in the back from 10′ away while 200’ from his destination you do not find self-defense. But when you hear that the wound is consistent with Z having been on the bottom and TM on top at close range YOU MUST CONSIDER SELF DEFENSE unless you are just bound and determined to hang Z because you don’t like him.

        Burden of proof comes in here as well. The jury could have found manslaughter from the circumstances because Z. was reckless in leaving his vehicle, but since it could also find self defense from the forensics, BOP makes self-defense/acquittal the more satisfactory jury result IMO.

        I think the trial judge will also hold the prosecution in contempt or other wise blast it for the Brady violation (withholding evidence).


  9. Mich:

    mind-boggling. But then, I also found the OJ verdict mind-boggling.

    Perhaps it is you who doesn’t see far beyond your own existence bubble.


  10. Heh. You can be really funny at times, Scott!


  11. Despite the criminal verdict, I would expect that Martin’s parents should prevail in a wrongful death lawsuit.


    • JNC, I doubt Z has anything of value for a P’s attorney to go after. A civil suit just for the sake of a verdict doesn’t seem attractive.

      In TX, in a straight manslaughter case, a J. could instruct a jury both on self defense and to the effect that if they found that the D provoked the confrontation they could ignore the self defense instruction. I’ll bet that is true in FL too, b/c that is pretty common old law.


  12. Mark:

    Bypassing a GJ is not even possible in many states, Scott. I think this was a function of the FL Special Prosecutor law.

    Thanks. When would a Grand Jury usually be required? Is it only when a special prosecutor is investigating? I assume the normal state prosecutor with jurisdictional authority can bring any charges without going to a grand jury.


    • While a GJ is usually persuaded to the prosecutor’s POV, it stands as a leaky prophylatic against runaway prosecutorial abuse of discretion. In most states, an indictment cannot issue except from a GJ.


      • Mark:

        In most states, an indictment cannot issue except from a GJ.

        So it is the case that in most states there a Grand Jury is constantly in session and a state attorney must take any case he wants to bring to trial to the GJ? (Sorry for so many questions.)


        • Scott, GJs are in session for periods called terms. They are chosen from the public off the jury wheel which should equal the voter registration list. GJs may serve counties or districts. The DA brings the charges [“the complaint”] and presents a prima facie case to the GJ, including testimony, which if uncontradicted would make all the elements of the crime. The GJ then decides which if any charges to indict upon. The DA acts as legal advisor to the GJ.

          Sometimes a D requests to be heard by the GJ. I did it once in a Laredo Federal Court when my Austin accused had an airtight alibi and was clearly mistakenly identified for another R. Gonzales. I could not accompany him into the GJ Room. But he brought with him enough proof that he was in Austin at every time he was supposed to have been in Laredo that he was not included in the indictment. If I had been hired earlier, I could have convinced the FBI they had the wrong Gonzales, but it had gone too far for the FBI to do anything about it except suggest that my client ask to be heard by the GJ. That is a rare exception, and one caused by a “sealed indictment”. None of the alleged conspirators were arrested until all of them could be arrested on the same day.

          GJs also can impanel investigations of their own. In Austin, one GJ demanded that the APD investigate systematic remodeling fraud. Several members had known old timers who were taken advantage of by phony contractors and had signed their homes away. The DA had those complaints but never did anything with them saying they were civil matters. This GJ managed to get indictments on several swindlers.

          Mostly the prima facie case consists of two police officers testifying about the burglary, or the drugs, or the car theft, and a lab report. Mostly it is something in a lab report catches the eye of a grand juror that the GJ asks for more testimony. I am told the “CSI effect” has hit the GJ room.

          But as you can tell, I favor the GJ system.


        • Mark:



          I’m still curious about your answers to my 3 questions from earlier. Especially why you called the Sanford police “Barney Fife-ish”. I didn’t follow the story until recently, so perhaps I have missed something, but I am not aware of anything that suggests they were incompetent.


  13. BTW…I spent a lot of time this morning watching the various news shows discussing the Zimmerman verdict. I continue to be fascinated by the way people use language to subtly and subconsciously advance the narrative or framing of issues that they desire. I noticed that critics of the jury verdict this morning, notably Jesse Jackson but many other as well, routinely characterize the 17 year old Martin as a “child”. I guess this kind of thing works to influence some people.


  14. I always thought a grand jury was a bit of a formality. The old saw about being able to indict a ham sandwich applies.

    It still bothers me that carrying a loaded gun in pursuit of an individual is not seen as indicative of their intent. Checkov’s Law as applied to real life. I do buy into the reasonable doubt on self-defense as a he-said/he-can-never-say problem but juries are usually instructed (as I was the one time I sat on a jury) that they must weigh the relative veracity of the various witnesses.

    As in the OJ trial, not taking the stand seems to have been a good tactic. It displays confidence that the defense thinks the prosecution has not made it’s case and it prevents any Perry Mason/A Few Good Men breakdowns on the stand which would destroy the defense’s arguments.


    • YJ, it is generally a mere formality in vanilla cases with police witnesses.

      There are other kinds of cases, however. Preparing a white collar case for a GJ requires a prosecutor to marshal significant expert and auditor testimony before the proceeding. GJs generally want to see a demonstration from the forensic analysts and that means there is less chance for a corrupt DA to hold the threat of indictment over someone’s head for personal gain. In Travis County, two weeks ago, the chair of the Christmas Fund non-profit was indicted. I know that investigation and assembly of evidence for the GJ took from Jan through May, but an unhampered by a GJ DA would have indicted in January. No GJ would generally lead to sloppy work. It did, here.

      According to the two law profs/former prosecutors I heard on NPR this case should have been indicted on manslaughter and tried on that single theory. Instead, the prosecution went for a case that could not have been made to most juries – and it seems likely a GJ would have indicted only for manslaughter, as well.

      In a case without professional witnesses the GJ also looms as important. Many GJs tell the prosecutor, in those cases, they want to hear “more.”


  15. The right-wing media, especially talk radio, has responded by making Zimmerman a hero.

    Who is making Zimmerman out to be a “hero?” I don’t watch Fox, etc but it seems that many are defending the guy because they think he was made the center of a left-wing media circus, not because they approve of guys shooting unarmed black teenagers.

    Sometimes it seems to us on the right that the left gets all emotionally involved in a case even if there is no case (Duke Lacrosse team, Tawana Brawley).


  16. I think the take away for me is that the idea of armed self defense outside the home is just unacceptable for some. . He was armed and therefore in the wrong. The very idea that it could have been a legitimate shooting was a nonstarter because that can’t possibly be true. Because decent people don’t carry/own guns. It’s about the use of power and you in society gets to wield it. And the idea that an individual can — even in extremely limited circumstance — is just offensive to them.

    See http://io9.com/disturbing-chart-shows-rise-in-justified-killings-of-773490798. The data indicate there has been a rise in justifiable homicides. Beyond that pure speculation. But the inference is “this is bad and probably racist”. For me justified is just that. But if you don’t agree with the idea of armed citizens …


  17. Bingo Nova.


    • It was unlikely, George, to begin with, but assuming that is what the CR Division at Justice comes up with as well, finito.


    • McWing:

      Does this make a Fed case impossible?

      But…but…he shot an unarmed black teenager. How could racism not be a factor?


  18. he can feel guilty all he wants. just don’t expect me to.
    i wasn’t there that night.


  19. McWing:

    From the “guilt” link:

    The “Stand Your Ground” law of that state that was used to defend George Zimmerman…

    Heh. Florida’s Stand Your Ground law played no role at all in Zimmerman’s defense.


  20. From Holder’s speech today,

    Independent of the legal determination that will be made, I believe that this tragedy provides yet another opportunity for our nation to speak honestly about the complicated and emotionally-charged issues that this case has raised. We must not – as we have too often in the past – let this opportunity pass. I hope that we will approach this necessarily difficult dialogue with the same dignity that those who have lost the most, Trayvon’s parents, have demonstrated throughout the last year – and especially over the past few days. They suffered a pain that no parent should have to endure – and one that I, as a father, cannot begin to conceive. Even as we embrace their example and hold them in our prayers, we must not forego this opportunity to better understand one another and to make better this nation we cherish.

    What does he mean?


  21. Claims that race shouldn’t be involved would hold a lot more water if Trayvon Martin’s race didn’t factor into his death. This can take relatively benign forms. Quite some time ago on this spot on the Intertubes, I commented about my feelings when I walked by the corner of Victoria and Selby in St. Paul, Minnesota. There was a youth club there and there’d be a half dozen young, black men hanging around outside. I felt uneasy walking by and realized I had internalized some cultural views of young black men.

    If you think that George Zimmerman didn’t react in part to Trayvon Martin’s race, you are being deliberately obtuse.


    • FB:

      If you think that George Zimmerman didn’t react in part to Trayvon Martin’s race, you are being deliberately obtuse.

      I don’t know whether or not Martin’s race played a part in any of Zimmerman’s actions that night, but even if it did it does not necessarily imply anything racist. Martin’s race is just one small part of the context of the situation. There seems to be a tendency among those looking to impute racist motives to someone to distill all contextual situations down to the the single factor of race, when in fact the racial factor itself is just one of many at play, and the use of it may well depend entirely upon, or even be overwhelmed by, the existence of other factors.

      If Z had seen a white man wearing a hoodie and staring at houses in the rain, would he have called the police and followed him? If Z had seen a black man carrying an umbrella while wearing a suit and tie instead of a hoodie, would he have called the police and followed him? If the area had not already been the target of several break-ins, would he have been compelled to call the police and followed him? If Martin was a teenage black female instead of a teenage black male, would Z have called the police and followed her? If Martin hadn’t suddenly run away, would Z have gotten out of the truck to follow him? If Z found a white teenager hitting his face with his fists and banging his head against the ground, would he still have shot the guy?

      I don’t know the answer to any of these questions, but neither do you, and they seem to me relevant when questioning whether or not Z was reacting to Martin’s race.


      • Alan Dershowitz calls for a DOJ investigation of Zimmerman prosecutor Angela Corey:

        She submitted an affidavit that was, if not perjurious, completely misleading. She violated all kinds of rules of the profession, and her conduct bordered on criminal conduct. She, by the way, has a horrible reputation in Florida. She’s known for overcharging, she’s known for being highly political. And in this case, of course she overcharged. Halfway through the trial she realized she wasn’t going to get a second degree murder verdict, so she asked for a compromised verdict, for manslaughter. And then, she went even further and said that she was going to charge him with child abuse and felony murder. That was such a stretch that it goes beyond anything professionally responsible. She was among the most irresponsible prosecutors I’ve seen in 50 years of litigating cases, and believe me, I’ve seen good prosecutors, bad prosecutors, but rarely have I seen one as bad as this prosecutor, [Angela] Corey.


  22. If you think that George Zimmerman didn’t react in part to Trayvon Martin’s race, you are being deliberately obtuse.

    Is this true for Trayvon Martin as well?

    “Creepy ads Cracker.”


  23. Once again, proof The Onion has quit being satire. From their exclusive article by Juror E6:

    Seriously, do you have any idea how incredibly frustrating that is? Knowing someone killed another human being, but at the same time having your hands tied when determining his guilt because of laws that make absolutely no sense whatsoever? So, when you accuse myself and my fellow jury members of being racist or incompetent, try keeping in mind that Florida has laws that expressly allow anyone to use deadly force against another person if they feel threatened. Believe it or not, it’s actually kind of tricky to convict a man with murder when that’s the case.


    • yello (from your allegedly non-satrical Onion piece):

      …try keeping in mind that Florida has laws that expressly allow anyone to use deadly force against another person if they feel threatened.

      I’m pretty sure every state has laws allowing people to use deadly force in self-defense.


    • yello:

      Also from Slate is Emily Bazelon who has good legal judgment.

      I’m not sure how good it is. She blame’s Florida’s law for the lack of a conviction, but if you follow her very own links you find out that, with regard to the Florida self-defense statute that got Zimmerman off:

      Aside from the “no duty to retreat” language, inapplicable to this case, this is standard self-defense law, the same as most states.


      • Actually, the instruction did invoke SYG at page 11.


        • Mark:

          Actually, the instruction did invoke SYG at page 11.

          That may have been part of the judge’s instructions, but it was not raised as part of Z’s defense. His claim was not that he did not have the legal obligation to retreat, but that he could not retreat because Martin was on top of him and beating him. The SYG law was not relevant to Z’s defense, from everything I have read.


  24. Yello,

    Was the Stand Your Ground used in this case?


  25. I am not aware of anything that suggests they were incompetent.

    The Sanford police by consensus did not cover themsleves with glory with their rather perfucnctionary investigation which led to the resignation of the chief of police.





    • yello:

      The Sanford police by consensus…

      The Huffpo article points out one significant mistake (failure to look at Martin’s phone records) and otherwise spends its time discussing a totally different case. The MSNBC link is to a former police officer/current university professor in New York who has 2 vague criticisms and one which is based on an incorrect understanding of the facts. The last link, which describes itself as “…a leading website for socio-political commentary that reflects conscious and liberal viewpoints”, doesn’t even provide an identifiable criticism of the investigation, but instead simply characterizes it as “botched”. Not much of a consensus, if you ask me.

      …their rather perfucnctionary investigation which led to the resignation of the chief of police.

      It is not clear to me that his resignation, which was originally not even accepted by the City Commission, had anything to do with the competence of the investigation. It looks to me to be more a function of the media circus surrounding the failure to press charges, and was an attempt to calm things down. That is, the media and race hustlers wanted a scalp so he offered his. Ironically, and in light of the outcome of the trial, it seems that his original decision that a case against Zimmerman could not be made was the right one.


  26. It seems that Bazelon’s bitch is with the concept of Reasonable Doubt. She’s mad that the State has to prove guilt beyond a Reasonable Doubt, not a perponderance of evidence.


  27. What evidence could the Sanford police have collected, but didn’t, that would have led to a guilty verdict on any of the charges? If there isn’t any, then doesn’t the verdict exonerate the police department’s investigation?


  28. “Zimmerman didn’t even get charged with littering” That would be because Zimmerman did not litter.

    Having had nothing else to discuss at work that last couple of days, my take on it is this. NBC should pay out the wazoo for splicing the 911 tape together like they did. As should ABC for digitizing out the gashes on the back of GZs head. Those deceitful acts set in motion the events that set back race relations 30 years. GZ should have stayed in his car but getting out is simply a poor decision, not illegal. I don’t think that there was anyway that there could have been a verdict other than non-guilty, given what I know about FL laws (granted from TV). From all I have read, GZ is overzealous with his neighborhood watch activities but not a racist. Nor can I find any evidence that this had anything to do with race or racial profiling (profiling yes…but racial profiling no). Without the other side of the story, it’s hard to get a complete picture but that is no different from any other case where one party is dead. The evidence is what it is as are the laws.


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