We will never know what was in George Zimmerman’s heart that rainy night when he shot Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Miami Gardens teenager who had been walking back from a convenience store carrying a bag of Skittles and a can of fruit tea to his father’s home in Sanford.
The state wrapped up its case Friday against the neighborhood watch volunteer who spotted the 17-year-old and called police to report what he considered to be suspicious activity in a gated community that had had a rash of break-ins.
The events that unfolded from that point on were tragic — and most surely preventable. But, under the law, were they admissible as self-defense, as the Zimmerman legal team claims?
As of this writing, the Seminole County jury’s verdict had not been rendered. Whether second-degree murder, manslaughter or an acquittal on self-defense grounds, what’s clear is that this tragedy opened raw emotions about race, politics and the law — and also brought together people of good will from every sector of society.
Even as divided as opinions from Miami to Los Angeles might be about this heartbreaking case, Trayvon’s parents, brother and extended family have exhibited only grace and dignity under the most dire of circumstances, going to pains to stress that racial considerations must not become the issue and to reiterate that justice would be served whatever the outcome because Trayvon’s death did not go unnoticed.
This case — thanks to Trayvon’s parents’ persistence in drawing attention to the circumstances that delayed Zimmerman’s arrest for weeks — has jolted our national conscience and garnered worldwide attention to Florida’s lackadaisical Stand Your Ground law, which initially factored into Sanford police officials’ resistance to press charges until a groundswell of public backlash forced the governor to appoint an independent investigator to weigh the facts.
Since the February 2012 shooting, community leaders, elected leaders and law enforcement officials in South Florida and Sanford have been working in their communities, holding town halls to educate people about the court system and ensure they have confidence that even if there were an acquittal, the judicial system worked beyond a reasonable doubt. The role of pastors in the African-American community, in particular, has been crucial, along with school officials, coaches and youth center counselors, all focusing their messages on the right to speak up regardless of the judicial outcome — but peacefully and within the law.
“It’s all right to be vocal, but we don’t want to be violent,” the Rev. Walter T. Richardson, chairman of Miami-Dade County’s Community Relations Board, told the AP. “We’ve already lost one soul and we don’t want to lose any more.”
How Miami law-enforcement officers react, if situations flare up on the streets, will be crucial. Violence from all sectors must be avoided. That must be Job One, particularly for a police agency that has been put on notice by a scathing Justice Department report on inappropriate police shootings in previous years.
Miami today is not the same place it was in the 1980s. That sad era taught our community lessons about respecting differences and embracing our common good.
Whatever the legal outcome, let there be no mistake: Trayvon Martin’s short life has marked our national soul and, in his death, we all have been forced to confront how far we’ve come and yet how far we have to go — still.