Trial of George Zimmerman Could Trigger Another Rodney King

A protracted murder trial of George Zimmerman is the last thing we need, writes Mansfield Frazier.

Kevork Djansezian / AP Photos (left); Martin Family Photos / AP Photos

As George Zimmerman faces murder charges for shooting Trayvon Martin, it’s worth asking if America is in danger of facing Rodney King, Part II?

That’s what I see down the tracks: If this case goes all the way to trial, it’s a train wreck waiting to happen. The time is now for strong hands to take the helm and steady the ship of state—not to mention our national racial, political and legal discourse. The paramount concern has to be to avert a large-scale racial calamity.

As Touré recently wrote, if sane adults are not careful, deliberate and measured in the handling of the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman affair, a dark time could descend upon America.

Look what’s already festering on the streets of Sanford, Florida. On the one hand we’ve got the three stooges of the New Black Panther Party running around Sanford, spouting off crazy ideas and becoming a total embarrassment to more thoughtful and reasoning blacks who simply want justice. On the other we’ve got the equally clownish neo-Nazis, goose-stepping around on their self-appointed mission to protect the white race. In this environment it wouldn’t take much to ignite the racial power keg we’re sitting on. One false or ill-conceived move in this case could allow the loony inmates—not Zimmerman’s current neighbors, but those who are imprisoned by their long-simmering racial hatreds—to fan the incendiary flames of bigotry into full-blown conflagrations of violence across the land.

As someone who watched the King riots unfold from a Los Angeles motel window (and sometimes from the balcony, when we weren’t too afraid to venture out), I’m here to tell you it was a nightmarish time. Thick, acrid black smoke from hundreds of fires hung over the L.A. basin for days as young, armed blacks and Hispanics roared around in open convertibles and jeeps, wearing bandannas and brandishing all sorts of weaponry. We could hear gunfire both in the distance and nearby. Stores that hadn’t been set on fire the first day were looted by the second, and by the third day TV stations were warning of an impending food shortage. A body lay in the gutter on Crenshaw Boulevard for the better part of two days before National Guard troops removed it.

We don’t want to go back there. Fortunately Zimmerman’s new attorney, Mark O’Mara, appears to comprehend the broader implications and potential danger of the situation, and seems well qualified to negotiate a fair outcome for his client, and indeed for the rest of us. He has the calm demeanor of a law professor, and speaks in measured, but not calculating, terms. His first comments seemed designed not to convince anyone of his client’s innocence, but rather to take the heated rhetoric down a few notches. He cautioned that everyone should allow the justice system to work.

So what would a fair outcome look like? To my mind, the government offers Zimmerman a plea deal that has him back on the street within this decade, and he accepts it quietly. That seems like a conclusion most reasonable Americans could live with. Of course, no matter how long or short any sentence may be, there will be those who disagree, some vehemently.

If O’Mara were successful in brokering such a resolution, he should be viewed as nothing less than a savior. A protracted murder trial of George Zimmerman is the last thing this country needs right now. America can only dodge so many racial bullets, and a not-guilty verdict in this case could very easily turn the racial cold war into a very hot one.

Of course, for such a plea scenario to work, Zimmerman will need to listen more to O’Mara than to any of the other voices clamoring for a piece of him. He’s in isolation right now, presumably for his own safety, but a side benefit is that it keeps the more rabid right-wingers from getting inside his head and convincing him to take the case to trial, based on the belief that no matter what the evidence shows, in Florida at least one juror will never vote to convict. Unfortunately, this reasoning is not crazy. The South, after all, is still the South.

But after a few weeks of isolation and the counsel of O’Mara, Zimmerman may decide going to trial isn’t in his best interest. If O’Mara is as savvy as he seems, he will probably inform his client of the stark legal facts. The state overcharged him with murder 2 for two reasons: it’s a bargaining chip to force him to accept a lesser charge, and a means to keep him locked up pretrial. The way the legal system is designed, it’s difficult for someone being held in custody to win acquittal. Even if he went to trial and managed to get a hung jury, the state would surely retry him (multiple times, if necessary), until they get a conviction or he’s spent more time in the county lockup than he would have spent in prison if he’d just pleaded guilty in the first place. And even if he were acquitted, let’s not forget the specter of a federal indictment being handed down.

The wild card is his father, Robert, who has so far sounded like a knee-jerk far-right ideologue. In a CBS interview he said, "I never foresaw so much hate coming from the president, the Congressional Black Caucus, the NAACP," and this was before Obama said anything about the case! It will be virtually impossible to keep Robert Zimmerman away from his son, which means he’ll have ample opportunity to whisper Stand Your Ground rhetoric into his ear, possibly ginning up Zimmerman’s courage and convincing him to go to trial in spite of the danger of being convicted.

In all of this, the upcoming bail hearing is key: If the judge doesn’t grant bail,  Zimmerman had better start listening real intently to his lawyer.