Margaret Burnham: To claim that the verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman proves the worthiness of our justice system, is to disregard the deep and abiding distrust black youth have for a system rigged against them. In this photo, Jaylen Reese, 12, of Atlanta, marches to downtown during a protest of George Zimmerman's not guilty verdict in the 2012 shooting death of teenager Trayvon Martin, Monday, July 15, 2013, in Atlanta. (David Goldman/AP)

The NAACP’s appeal for federal review of the Florida verdict in the murder case against George Zimmerman reprises the calls for federal statutory remedies for racial homicides, made first in the wake of the Civil War, then in the following decades to control lynching, and finally after the gay-hating murder of Matthew Shepard and the lynching of James Byrd.

As these laws and reform efforts signal, the national government should bear primary responsibility for punishing violent suppression of constitutional rights — including the rights to life and due process. But unfortunately there is no neat fit between existing law and the known facts in the Zimmerman case.

Neither Zimmerman nor the investigating police saw Trayvon Martin for what he was: an unarmed black kid being pursued by an armed white stranger.

The Civil War-era statutes, enfeebled by the post-Reconstruction Supreme Court, are aimed at conspiracies or at public officials. The Senate infamously voted against lynching legislation in the 1930s and ’40s and in any case the one man shooting of Trayvon Martin was not a lynching. The hate crimes laws, adopted in 1968 and amended in 2009, require proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the homicide was motivated by animus toward a protected group, but clearly the Florida jury rejected that claim. Nor has the modern Supreme Court upheld remedies designed to assure even-handed criminal justice, as in the death penalty context, where it has rejected relief despite evidence of racial bias. In short, federal law offers little help.

The essential, common dynamic which propelled the entire series of events in Sanford, Fla. — the shooting, the investigation and the trial — was that neither Zimmerman nor the police saw Trayvon Martin for what he was: a barely 17-year-old kid walking home from the store, scared because he was being followed by a stranger.

The law is famously inadequate in protecting people against this kind of skewed perspective, and the history of that failure helps explain the vast differences in the perceptions of white and black Americans on the fairness of the Florida verdict.

To claim that the verdict was true to the evidence and that it proves the worthiness of our justice system, is to disregard the deep and abiding distrust black youth have for a system rigged against them.

And why should they believe otherwise?

Throughout our nation’s history, the Department of Justice has rarely prosecuted racial killings. Before 1965, no more than a dozen cases were brought, although reported lynchings numbered in the thousands. Meanwhile, African-Americans were — and still are — imprisoned at catastrophic rates. And today, any young person of color who has been in a courtroom can still feel the invisible hand of racial bias. Indeed, in the Zimmerman trial, the race and class of Trayvon Martin’s friend, Rachel Jeantel, undermined her credibility as much as any discrepancy in her testimony.

The increased risks to which our criminal justice system exposed him were contributing factors in Trayvon Martin’s death and in Zimmerman’s exoneration. But, tragically, they were also apparently legally irrelevant.

In 1987, the Supreme Court ruled that there was no need to reverse the conviction of a black man who killed a white man, even though statistical evidence established that defendants accused of killing whites were four times more likely to get the death penalty than those accused of killing blacks. The court rejected the death penalty appeal of one Warren McCleskey, reasoning that evidence did not prove there was racial animus in his particular case.

Trayvon Martin is today’s McCleskey. The increased risks to which our criminal justice system exposed him were contributing factors in Martin’s death and in Zimmerman’s exoneration. But, tragically, they were also apparently legally irrelevant.

Reductive as they necessarily are, trials can expose more complex understandings of how race operates, even “post-racially,” to thwart our best efforts to render equal justice.

Again, neither Zimmerman nor the investigating police saw Trayvon Martin for what he was: an unarmed black kid being pursued by an armed white stranger. If he had been a girl, or a white male, he would not be dead today. And that is where our system, which some claim to be “the best in the world,” is not good enough.


Tags: Crime, Law, Race

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  • Frank

    Justice is no more. As they intended.

  • spikethedog

    All that black youths have to do to “fix” that rigged justice system is stop doing drugs, stop doing crime, pull up their pants and put their hats on straight.
    They’ll find the justice system works just fine then.

    • dust truck

      Yes, because I’m sure white kids never do drugs, never commit crimes and never dress that way.

      • X-Ray

        The usual childish excuse, “they do it too”, doesn’t fly.

        • dust truck

          “childish?” Assuming someone acts someway because of their appearance IS childish. Why on earth do you conservatives always say you’re the mature ones when you resort to the most base and vile playground tactics on a regular basis?

          Tell me X-Ray who have you bullied recently for their lunch money?

          • X-Ray

            Typical response of a liberal. If you can’t refute the ideas, attack the

          • dust truck

            See above where you called me “childish.” However, I applaud your trolling skills, you’re doing a masterful job of leading me on with your insipid pestering.

          • X-Ray

            Actually I termed the excuse childish. Then you suggested I was a bully, again with no evidence or foundation. One calls that prejudice.

          • X-Ray Blows

            suck some balls X-Ray

    • Susan

      This might be the most ignorant thing I’ve ever read.

    • Paul Norman

      Actually, white kids and adults far outnumber blacks folks in drug use.

      • BobTrent

        Not surprising as Black people comprise under 14% of the population.

        • Paul Norman

          Percentage wise, I also make the same assertion.

    • Michael Fitzpatrick

      Ah ha. So it’s their own fault that the justice system gives minority youth vastly different outcomes- because of how they dress or act. I assume the logic works the same as the wife with a black eye? Or the girl dressed for the club that gets raped.

      If justice is truly to be blind she shouldn’t care where anyone’s pants sit. You Spike, earn my bigot of the week award.

    • SJ Ortiz

      Since you are not brave enough to stand behind your silly words and have attributed them to your dog, then you don’t deserve to be included in a serious conversation about a complex issue. Be brave and speak for yourself.

  • David F

    This article though likely likely written as a satirical piece is in reality the way this case should have been presented by the media in the first place.

    “George Zimmerman Files Civil Suit Against Trayvon Martin’s Parents

    By Nigel J. Covington III


    THIS JUST IN… George Zimmerman filed a civil suit today just before 5PM EST at the Seminole County, Florida, Courthouse. The suit alleges the parents of Trayvon Martin, failed to control their minor-age son on the evening of February 26, 2012, when Martin repeatedly assaulted Zimmerman, placing him in imminent fear for his life and resulting in the death of Martin.

    The civil action specifies that Zimmerman acted in self defense resulting in the case being ruled a justifiable homicide by a jury trial that ended on Saturday with a verdict of not guilty.

    Desperate state prosecutors charged the victim with 2nd degree murder though they had no evidence of a crime and hoping to stay off more violence and having Florida put to the torch at the criminal hands of rioters months before the start of the state’s tourist season. The complaint further specifies Zimmerman shares “zero-liability” in the death of Martin as he acted without malice and solely in self-defense. The amount of damages Zimmerman is seeking are unspecified.

    Zimmerman, 29, was forced to move from his home soon after the incident when the domestic terrorist organization the New Black Panther Party publically announced the group was offering a $10,000 bounty for Zimmerman, dead or alive. Attorney General Eric Holder later claimed there was no evidence to prosecute anyone from the Black Panthers, a decision that angered most Americans. President Obama supported Holder’s decision ignoring cries of foul from outraged citizens.

    Zimmerman has remained in hiding since the shooting nearly 18 months ago and continues to receive thousands of death threats daily.

    Before the shooting Zimmerman was well known and highly respected in the community for his volunteer and charity work including organizing the Neighborhood Watch program for his gated Sanford, Florida, community.

    The jury’s verdict not only clears Zimmerman as an innocent man but it also justifies the excellent work of the Sanford Police Department who acted appropriately by not charging Zimmerman and clearly citing there was never any evidence to do so.

    Under mounting public pressure from the black community the police chief was let go and the department has been vilified for the last 18 months being accused of racism, corruption, incompetency and covering up the cold-blooded murder of a child.

    On the night of February 26, 2012, Zimmerman spotted a stranger walking through his gated community and called 911 reporting the stranger appeared intoxicated and was seen prowling around several private residences in the community. Zimmerman opted to keep an eye on the person until the police arrived. Again desperate prosecutors during the trial would side with the propaganda version of events created by the Black Panthers claiming Zimmerman was pursuing Martin with intent to murder. However the jury easily spotted this turd in the punchbowl in the state’s case.

    Zimmerman lost sight of the stranger and decided to return and wait in his car for police to arrive. Instead the stranger approached Zimmerman from behind and dropped him with a single “sucker-punch” to the nose. The victim fell to the ground whereupon the 17 year-old football player, now known to be Trayvon Martin, landed on the victim’s chest, held him down and repeatedly smashed his head into the pavement resulting in several head injuries.

    Zimmerman, in fear for his life thankfully had a legal concealed handgun which he drew from his belt holster. The victim fired a single shot at his brutal would-be assassin; the bullet passing through Martin’s heart killing him instantly. It was Zimmerman’s 2nd Amendment right as a citizen to own and carry a handgun that clearly saved his life that night.

    Zimmerman dispatched his attacker, now known to be a violent drug addled gangster-thug with a single bullet fired from his handgun. On Saturday evening the announcement came that the jury who tried the case had reached a verdict of not guilty. For obvious reasons this case will go down in the history of American jurisprudence as a true testament to the veracity of our justice system.”

  • Joemash

    Just reading the first few sentences I immediately concluded this is bunch of malarkey. Still making up what they think happened although the evidence tells otherwise. Throwing fuel to burn, the protestors to new limits. For the drink LEAN he had two of the three necessary ingredients, come on! He did the weed, too young. “no.limit.nigga” was his ‘handle’. Some day ole Jentel will get drunk, someone will piss her off, and out will come what exactly transpired on that last phone. Anyone who grew up ‘on the street corner’ knows exactly how it went down.

  • X-Ray

    Damn the evidence, the investigators, the jury, the verdict and the facts,
    we’ve made up our minds. Ignore Martin’s assault on Zimmerman for the crime of “following”. Zimmerman is guilty. Ah, there’s the breakdown in the system.

  • Gcrea

    Why do people keep referring to Zimmerman as white? Isn’t he Hispanic?

    • BobTrent

      Father: White of German ancestry. “Zimmermann” is the German spelling. “Zimmerman” is more “American” looking. Many German immigrants dropped the double “n” from their names.
      Mother: Peruvian of mixed Peruvian, European, and Black ancestry.
      Really, everyone on this planet is a mestizo to some degree.

  • SJ Ortiz

    The jury in the Trayvon Martin case made a serious mistake in setting Zimmerman free with no consequences for his foolish, dangerous, and unnecessary behavior. They had the option of finding Zimmerman guilty of manslaughter, which would have been justice. Zimmerman cannot claim self defense when he purposely created the confrontation after being told by the police to stop following Trayvon.

    • BobTrent

      Zimmerman was not on trial for his “foolish, dangerous, and unnecessary” behavior. He was on trial for second degree murder, with manslaughter as a lesser alternative if the jury acquitted him of murder.

  • BobTrent

    Florida’s Legislature in its wisdom allows adults to obtain concealed weapons (firearms) permits while not permitting minors to obtain such permits.
    Further, Zimmerman had retreated, though under no legal duty to do so, as far as he could: his back was flat against the pavement.
    He was a resident of the gated community, which streets are not public but private property, and saw someone he did not recognize as a resident or guest of a resident and who fit the stereotype of those he suspected of fomenting a crime wave in his private community.
    Sorry. If I wear the “uniform” of an antisocial sort I might expect to be presumed to be a member of such antisocial class.
    It’s the government that is supposed to treat everyone equal. We haven’t completely attained that yet, much less educating individuals to regard all on the same basis.

  • Paul Norman

    Have you folks read or seen the “holdout” juror who really wanted to find Zimmerman guilty but had to follow the Florida laws? She says he “got away with murder.”