You know that good feeling you get when that piece of the gadget, gizmo, or toy you’ve been trying to assemble finally snaps into place. That’s the way I felt when the Florida special prosecutor announced her findings in the homicide of Trayvon Martin and announced that the killer would be prosecuted after all.
Not that I am saying that George Zimmerman is guilty as charged of second-degree murder or any other crime. I just don’t know, and neither do you.
What I find heartening is the professionalism of Angela Corey, the special prosecutor appointed by Florida’s governor, when she went before the media to announce that there would indeed be charges. The American legal system twisted and turned and finally clicked into place. In short, it began working the way it is supposed to work. The law, not the media, will decide what happened.
Prosecutor Corey made clear that she was not going to be discussing the merits of the case outside of the courtroom, that she was not responding to public pressure or media hype, and that she is out to do justice not only for the family of Trayvon but also for the defendant. Yes, the defendant! Too often forgotten is that prosecutors—unlike defense lawyers—have a legal and ethical obligation to make sure the accused also gets a fair trial.
In case you’ve been out of the country or taking a long winter’s nap, the Trayvon Martin killing was a racial earthquake that in turn triggered a media-fed tsunami that almost swept away common sense and raised the usual hysteria about white oppression of black people. Downplayed is the fact that the alleged killer is Hispanic and not the stereotypical white racist.
Trayvon Martin was a 17-year-old African-American youngster who was walking through a subdivision wearing a hooded sweatshirt. He came under suspicion from a self-appointed neighborhood watcher, George Zimmerman, 27, who was armed with a handgun. Zimmerman called 911 and against advice began following Martin, who was unarmed. Some sort of confrontation and scuffle followed, and Trayvon Martin was shot to death by Zimmerman.
Which of the two men initiated a physical confrontation will be ultimately up to a jury to decide. Things are complicated by a “stand-your-ground” statute in Florida that does not require a victim of an assault to retreat before using deadly force. Traditionally, such victims have been obligated to retreat except in their own homes. Many states, including Michigan, have enacted varying versions of such “no retreat” laws, and the details can get complicated.
(The fact that this summary, as brief as it is, is based on media reports makes me a little uneasy. One major network announced that Zimmerman was recorded by 911 uttering a racial epithet, but that “discovery” seems to have fade away in the face of allegations that the tape was edited to make the words sound like name calling. Of course, that sort of thing is why courts have rules of evidence, require testimony under oath, and invoke all kinds of protections to ensure as much as humanly possible that juries hear the truth).
The media has made much of the 45 days or so it took to charge Zimmerman, virtually accusing the local police department of racial foot dragging in their investigation of the case. Even aside from complications stemming from the “stand-your-ground” law, and notwithstanding the media frenzy demanding swift justice, it is not hard to spot this as a difficult case.
Moving cautiously may well have been the better part of investigative wisdom, and, in any event, the local police took three weeks and the state special prosecutor took another two weeks to make a decision and then another week to get the case ready to go.
Perhaps the Sanford, Fla., police remembered the Casey Anthony case, where the prosecutors went to trial without sufficient evidence, with the result that Ms. Anthony walked free on the charge of killing her daughter. Maybe that’s the reason why no charges have been brought against the husband in the Detroit-area case involving the murder of his wife, notwithstanding the fact that the accused hit man himself has said he was working for the husband.
Maybe in difficult cases it is better to wait for a break—even for a long time— rather than rush to trial, for once an arrest is made the accused is entitled to a speedy trial. Anyhow, yes, there may have been undue delay in wrapping up the Trayvon Martin investigation, but we don’t have enough information at this point to draw that conclusion.
Then there was the sight of Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton jockeying for position on the media stage, entrepreneurs blowing on the dying embers of the old-time racial fears that so long haunted this nation. The fact is that throughout the nation, African-Americans murder victims overwhelmingly die at the hands of other black people, not whites. White racism may be far from dead, but it not the main (or even a significant) cause of black homicides.
Fear of violence is real in black communities, but the source is not white racism. Efforts to stoke that old fire will from time to time cause flare ups, but it is a losing cause. The nation has moved on.
None of which mitigates the tragedy of a young African American lying dead in the dark streets of a city in Florida, another life snuffed out by senseless violence. We can blame race or guns or culture, and we will hear plenty about all of them in the coming months.
In the end, the law will fulfill its mission of taking upon itself the task of settling deadly disputes rather than leaving it to the parties. It’s not perfect, but the alternatives are unacceptable.
We may have to put up with demonstrations and media flame fanning, but it will be better than the blood-in-the streets alternatives found in less-civilized societies.