Did the George Zimmerman trial involve racist attitudes? Of course it did. Did the predominantly white jury reach the right verdict? Of course it did. Is the criminal justice system a racist institution? Of course it is. Do young black males disproportionately suffer the brunt of this criminal justice system? Of course they do. Did the media and politicians inflame the situation for their own purposes? Of course they did. Is this a conundrum easily resolved or reconciled? Of course it’s not.
Let’s start with whether this trial involved racist attitudes. That’s easy. There has already been a judicial determination that the prosecution was racist. Judge Nelson made a finding that the prosecution was exercising peremptory challenges in a race-based fashion. The race and cognizable class they were targeting? White women. After finding that the Florida prosecutors were targeting white women, her Honor used her discretion, based on a U.S Supreme Court precedent called Batson, to reseat two of the white women that the prosecutors kicked off the panel. Those two women later became jurors who voted to find George Zimmerman not guilty.
Faced with the prospect of trying this case to the only demographic that mattered—six women, five of whom were white—the prosecutors instead decided to play for the cameras. True homicide prosecutors will admit in private (and some brave souls will admit to the public) that the prosecutors in the Zimmerman case were appalling. Their histrionics were more appropriate for a bad episode of Law & Order. Even though the Zimmerman prosecutors had the advantage of pretrial depositions of witnesses, something absent in criminal cases in most jurisdictions other than Florida, they acted unaware of what witnesses were going to testify to on the stand. They put on witnesses who destroyed any chance of a conviction and sat idly by without obvious objection as the defense co-opted witness after witness.
The defense flawlessly made the prosecution witnesses their very own character witnesses for Zimmerman. The media, instead of wondering what case the prosecution was trying, fixated on complete nonsense like the defense lawyer’s lame knock-knock joke in his opening statement. Most breathlessly speculated that the defense would never recover. Supposed legal pundits, who themselves have never prosecuted or defended a homicide case in their career, daily gave high marks to the prosecution for their made-for-TV theatrics. As long as there is an Esquire after the name, they could opine in front of a camera about how great the prosecution was doing.
It's like going to a dermatologist for a second opinion when you are told you have a brain tumor. And what does the public know? Then, lo and behold, the jury comes back with a not-guilty verdict, which was the only correct verdict based on the evidence that was presented.
These prosecutors were scared from the beginning. They were scared to put the case in front of a grand jury. They were scared to turn over evidence to the defense. Zimmerman’s lawyer filed not one but six separate motions seeking sanctions against the prosecution for playing hide the ball. The judge even set a hearing post-trial on sanctions against the prosecution, which the media treated as just a normal part of the process. Instead of questioning why the prosecutors were repeatedly hiding evidence, the media just continued their cheerleading for the prosecution. The prosecutors were even afraid to put Trayvon Martin’s father on the witness stand. They left that chore for the defense.
The collective response from the hallelujah chorus of legal dermatologists? The defense had made a huge mistake calling Tracy Martin to the stand, instead of chastising the prosecution for playing hide the ball once again. In their penultimate act of fear, prosecutors sought a lesser charge than murder, basically running away from their case in its entirety and abandoning George Zimmerman as harboring ill will and malice. Instead, they jettisoned their malicious racist theory in favor of one that argued Zimmerman was grossly negligent. And in their final act of cowardice, the state attorney, Angela Corey, waited until the jury was out deliberating to fire her IT employee whistleblower who revealed her office’s prosecutorial shenanigans.
So why this inversion of the normal criminal roles of the prosecution and defense? It lies in one simple word. Race. Prosecutors are not used to calling the Trayvon Martins of the world, or any other black youth, a “child,” or characterizing their comings and goings to the store as innocently buying Skittles and watermelon tea. They are used to demonizing young black males as violent predators of the night. Historically, prosecutors in Florida thought nothing of seeking the death penalty for 15- and 16-year-old black “children” when they were prosecuting them. It took the U.S. Supreme Court to slow that process down, so that the 17-year-old “children” had to become 18 year-old “adults” before they could be sent to “Old Sparky,” the Florida death chamber.
Is it any surprise that years of this prosecutorial conditioning now leaves the prosecutors sounding almost schizophrenic and plastic when they describe a 17-year-old black male as a “child”? Go into any criminal courtroom in America in any metropolitan city and see the customers the prosecution is serving up. They are predominately “children” of color. Politicians and prosecutors use race as a strategy as part of their everyday currency. Is it any surprise that the public follows along? Think Willie Horton. Think President Obama talking about Trayvon looking like his son, if he had a son. Think George Zimmerman seeing a young black male with a hoodie who must be a punk who gets away with it. Think five or six white women who must have been wondering to themselves who was the prosecution and who was the defense.