The Trayvon Martin Case

Okay, let’s say, hypothetically (very hypothetically) that the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case had nothing to do with race.

Just to recap,  Trayvon Martin was a 17-year-old teenager coming home from a store with a bag of groceries. Home was a townhouse in a gated community, where he was staying with his father and his father’s fiancée.  When he entered the neighborhood, he ran into George Zimmerman, a 28 year old member of a self-appointed neighborhood watch patrol,  who was roaming the streets with a gun, intent on keeping his neighborhood safe from intruders. Trayvon Martin was black; Zimmerman is mixed-race Hispanic.

An altercation broke out between the two men. Zimmerman shot and killed Martin. There were no witnesses.

Martin was unarmed, Zimmerman was carrying a gun; but he had a permit for the gun so it was legal. He did not dispute shooting Martin, but in Florida, where this occurred, it’s legal to use deadly force in self-defense. Zimmerman claimed he was in fear for his life, and no one could prove he wasn’t.

A jury acquitted him of all charges. Supposedly they could do no other since he had abided by the law.

But here’s my question. If Zimmerman’s life really was in danger, then the altercation could have gone the other way. Martin could have killed Zimmerman.  In which case would he not have had the same legal defense?

Martin was an unarmed boy on a dark street, confronting a grown man totin’ a serious gun. If he said he felt his life was in danger and that he merely fought back, it would have been much more plausible than Zimmerman’s claim.

In fact, as I understand it, in Zimmerman’s trial, the question came down to whether he thought his life was in danger. His psychological state of mind became the basis of his defense.  Surely, a defense attorney would hardly need to stretch to argue that Trayvon Martin felt his life in danger, given the circumstances. Who on Earth would not feel threatened if he were standing on a dark street with a bag of groceries and a man with a gun approached him?

So if you leave race out of it and say that the not-guilty verdict in the Zimmerman trial was just based on the evidence and the law,  you are left with this:  in the state of Florida (and in any other state with similar stand-your-ground laws) if two guys get into a fight, it’s legal for either one of them to kill the other.  No matter which one does the killing, he’s not guilty. Which means that in Florida, murder is legal.

In reality, of course, race certainly was a factor in the Zimmerman verdict. The jury put themselves in Zimmerman’s place, on a dark street, near their own home, with a stranger approaching, a black teenager wearing a hoodie, and they thought,  I can see where Zimmerman might have felt his life was in danger.

And the thing is, it might be deplorable, but lots of people feel nervous about lots of people, based strictly on the other person’s race, clothes, demeanor, whatever.  Nervous, threatened even, without any rational or material basis for alarm.   It’s deplorable and we should deplore it, and we should do whatever we can to outgrow this reaction, but it won’t happen overnight in a country like ours, in which so many races, cultures, and ethnicities are trying to live together.

But there is one thing we can do overnight by fiat. We can change a law that says, if someone makes you nervous, it’s okay to go ahead and kill him. That’s what the Florida law basically says. And the verdict in the Zimmerman case proves it. And that verdict illustrates dramatically how wrong such a law is, especially if you assume, hypothetically, very hypothetically, that race was not a factor.

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