With last week's release of a trove of information about the Trayvon Martin killing, three things are now apparent.
First, special prosecutor Angela Corey's statement last month that public pressure had nothing to do with the decision to bring charges against George Zimmerman is exposed for the bunk that it always was. Two weeks after the shooting, well before the story went national, a principal investigating officer recommended arresting Zimmerman on manslaughter charges. His recommendation was ignored. In announcing an about-face in April, Corey attributed the decision to charge Zimmerman with new facts uncovered during the investigation, but the recently disclosed documents reveal that the case against Zimmerman was as strong in mid-March as it was in mid-April. Facts have indeed come to light since March, and for every fact that makes the case against Zimmerman stronger, there's another that makes it weaker. I'm not sure if bowing to public pressure in deciding to prosecute is a bad thing, but I do think dishonesty about one's motives is bad.
Second, if the case against Zimmerman ever reaches a jury (which it probably won't), there is no chance he will be convicted. Of course, Corey is an experienced prosecutor who must know this, which only further reveals the role public pressure played in her decision to indict.
Why won’t Zimmerman be convicted? Because we now know everything the jury is going to know. We've read the reports, seen the photos, heard the tapes. The only way the jury could learn something not contained in the documents, photographs, and medical reports released last week would be if witnesses with personal knowledge were to testify. But that will not happen, because Martin is dead, and Zimmerman won't speak.
So here is what the jury will learn: Zimmerman called police frequently to report supposedly suspicious characters, and every time he called he was suspicious about someone black. It will learn that a 911 tape records someone shouting "Help!” right before Zimmerman fired the single fatal shot from point-blank range. Some witnesses say the person screaming was Martin, some say it was Zimmerman, and the FBI's analyst says the recording is too distorted to tell. (Notably, the newly released documents reveal that when an investigator spoke with Martin’s father, Tracy, and asked whether the screaming on the tape was his son’s, he responded, “No.”)
The jury will also learn that the back of Zimmerman's shirt was wet, as if he had been lying on his back in the wet grass; that he had apparently been struck in the face, and that he was bleeding from a gash on the back of his head. It will learn that police officers asked him at least three times whether he wanted to go to the hospital—confirming contemporaneously that he had visible physical injuries.
A second-year law student could identify enough doubt here to preclude a criminal conviction. A superstar lawyer, which is what Zimmerman now has, could get an acquittal in his sleep. Zimmerman's defense will be that he felt threatened by Martin, that his fear was reasonable because Martin was hitting him, and that he was therefore justified in firing. Florida’s lenient Stand Your Ground law makes all of this close to a slam-dunk.
But wait, you might say—Zimmerman started it by following Martin! Martin's girlfriend told police at the time that Martin was scared of the guy following him, that Martin described him as “creepy.” He was a kid being shadowed by an adult. Even if he turned around and asked Zimmerman what he was doing, even if that question led to an altercation, Zimmerman started it all, right?
Of course he did. Which brings us to the third thing we know: the tragedy of this case—and there is no other word to describe the killing of a young man who has done nothing wrong and nothing to arouse any reasonable suspicion that he had—is a product of the interaction between two insidious factors: racism and state-sanctioned aggression.
As for the racism, my black friends with children have used the Martin killing as a “teaching moment,” but what kind of teaching moment is it when you have to tell your teenagers not to wear a hoodie at night in their own middle-class neighborhoods? Or that they should leave the hoods off even if it starts to rain? What kind of teaching moment is it when you have to tell them they cannot behave in those neighborhoods—their own neighborhoods—the same way their white friends do? You can call it a teaching moment if you want to, but the fact that I don't have to have the same conversation with our 11-year-old makes it a teaching moment we should be ashamed of.
Zimmerman may be a racist; I don’t know what is in his mind. But he'd hardly be unique in that regard, and besides, racism alone isn't what got Martin killed. The fault for the homicide here lies more fully with the NRA-backed Stand Your Ground law that will probably prevent this case from ever reaching a jury.
As I have written here before, Florida's law permits people to shoot to kill not only if their lives are in danger, but if even their property is threatened; beyond that, it permits them to shoot to kill if they reasonably believe it is necessary to prevent a felony. A law like that serves one purpose and one purpose only: to unleash armed vigilantes who roam through neighborhoods with a license to kill someone they reasonably believe might be doing something wrong.
When you mix a license to kill with deep and embedded racial distrust, you have a recipe that is certain to produce tragedies like the Martin killing. Obviously there are times when walking away is not an option, and if states want to enact laws to insure that people who kill as a last resort never even have to face a jury, that’s fine with me. But Trayvon Martin was not killed as a last resort.
How do I know? The police officer who recommended arresting Zimmerman in March identified the central relevant fact in this case: Zimmerman could have sat in his car, with no danger whatsoever to his own safety, and awaited the arrival of police—in fact, he was told by the 911 dispatcher to do just that. But he didn’t.
The documents revealed last week make it clear beyond dispute that Zimmerman set in motion the chain of events that led to the death of a young, scared kid who had every right to be exactly where he was. But under Florida law, that doesn't matter. So Zimmerman will get off, and the only good thing that can come from this case is for Florida to repair what its legislature has wrought.