Like many around the world, I am extremely disappointed with the jury verdict in George Zimmerman’s case. As an attorney and officer of the court, I applaud the jurors for their service and I respect the jury process. However, as a mother of an African-American, male teenager and a children’s and women’s rights advocate, I can’t help but be deeply concerned about the integrity of the process when one of the jurors takes to the airwaves in less than 48 hours after the verdict is delivered and announces that she has signed with a literary agent to write a book about the trial and her jury service. Although she later stated that she had a change of heart, clearly the reliability of the jury process is undermined if members can profit from their service, particularly service on a criminal trial involving a teen who was shot through the heart while walking through his neighborhood.
I have followed this trial intently and have also provided regular legal commentary on various television shows. In doing so, I became acutely aware of not just the evidence presented by the state and the defense, but by the racial undertones that have been present since the trial commenced. Notwithstanding the verdict that validates the fears of African-American mothers all over the country, the trial and subsequent verdict gave Americans an opportunity to witness first-hand the well-documented inequities in the criminal justice system for African-Americans as both defendants and victims. It also confirmed the idiocy of Stand Your Ground laws and the difficulty in achieving justice for a victim when the prosecution presents a case that is replete with inconsistencies and poorly prepared witnesses.
We heard repeatedly during the past 17 months from pundits, Zimmerman’s defense team, and even Judge Debra Nelson that the trial was not about race, yet one of the more memorable defense witnesses was the young white woman who George Zimmerman helped after an attempted burglary at her condo in the gated community where the incident occurred. In recounting the crime, the defense made a point to punctuate that the two men involved were “young African-Americans.” One can only imagine that these references were made with the intention of appealing to negative stereotypes about African-American males. The shameful logic is, if these young men, who resemble Trayvon Martin, were criminals, it’s reasonable to assume Trayvon was as well.
Additionally, Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground law resurfaced at the end of the trial and clearly played an enormous role in the jurors’ verdict. Although Zimmerman’s defense waived an immunity hearing based on the law, the judge read an instruction to the jurors based partially on the statute. By doing so, the jurors determined that Zimmerman had a right to “stand his ground” and use deadly force to kill Trayvon Martin rather than waiting for the police or retreating.
These factors were compounded by the state’s failure to provide the jurors with a coherent picture of what happened when Zimmerman encountered Trayvon and its myriad of problematic witnesses. In an interview following the trial, the lead prosecutor in the case admitted that he was surprised by the state’s medical expert’s testimony that he had no memory of Trayvon’s autopsy and would be relying exclusively on his personal notes. Lawyers know that witnesses often melt under rigorous cross examination, but it’s hard to imagine that seasoned prosecutors would not have been apprised of such a critical fact well in advance. Spending hours preparing key witnesses and eliminating surprises are fundamental and routine in any trial, and particularly one of this magnitude.
In the end, the homogenous, six-woman jury spoke and Zimmerman walked, while a 17-year-old boy’s death has sparked a national debate and movement. Thousands have taken to the streets to protest the verdict and to call upon the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate the filing of possible hate crime charges against Zimmerman. The verdict also has caused millions of Americans to confront the underbelly of the criminal justice system that incarcerates more African-American men than this nation sends to colleges or universities.
Some Americans convinced themselves after President Obama’s historic election that we were now in a “post-racial” era and that civil rights were things to be read about in history books. These misguided folk, and even those who accepted that the election of the first black president did not eradicate deep rooted prejudices held by many Americans have all had to accept that race has been, and still is, a dominant factor in the way African-Americans are treated in our system of justice. The late Senator Edward Kennedy put it best when he said that civil rights remain America’s great, unfinished business.
We won’t know for months if the DOJ decides to move forward and charge George Zimmerman with violating Trayvon Martin’s civil rights based on his race, or if any state houses around this nation will repeal or revise their states’ Stand Your Ground laws, but we do know that this country will never forget Trayvon Benjamin Martin, the important social justice questions his untimely death caused and that late evening of July 13, 2013 when six women in Sanford County, Florida stood as millions of Americans looked on, and pronounced George Zimmerman “not guilty.”