Finding ‘justice’ for Trayvon Martin



The furor over the not guilty verdict for George Zimmerman will not die down. Not because the jury reached the only verdict it could under the law and after concluding there was plenty of reasonable doubt, but because the verdict was fundamentally unfair. Deeply, frustratingly, heartbreakingly unfair.

An unarmed 17-year-old boy walking home from a convenience store, talking on his cell phone to a girl friend, shouldn’t be shot to death with impunity. But that’s what happened. George Zimmerman is free, if forever looking over his shoulder, and Trayvon Martin is dead. He wasn’t blameless, but he surely didn’t deserve to die.

The unfairness of it has brought tens of thousands of people to the streets and to rallies asking how a boy —Trayvon had just turned 17 — could be gunned down and the shooter not be punished. They wonder, how can this be? Where is the justice? What’s wrong with our laws and courts?

Those questions, I suspect, along with his personal history, are what prompted President Obama to go the White House press room and deliver an eloquent, unscripted meditation on race, law and the criminal justice system. I thought it was one of the best moments of his presidency.

Obama essentially told white America to try to see what happened in Sanford from a black perspective. To see it from the point of view of a black man who can’t walk into a department store without being tailed to see if he’s a shoplifter. To see it in the context of a long and shameful history of prejudice against African Americans.

To his credit, President Obama didn’t sugar coat it. He pointed out that while a disproportionate number of black men are behind bars, most are there for committing crimes against black victims. He urged Florida and the more than 20 states with Stand Your Ground laws to see if they’ve allowed people to escape conviction for using deadly force when it wasn’t justified.

According to the Tampa Bay Times, that’s happened some 600 times across the country since SYG became law in Florida in 2005. That’s why the Times, in an editorial, decried SYG as “a Florida law that all but encourages reckless behavior.” This newspaper’s editorial board said “the law’s impact in homicide cases has made Florida more dangerous, a state that gives free rein to confrontations resulting in homicide.”

Among those who voted for the law was then-state Sen. Frederica Wilson of Miami, now a member of Congress. At last Saturday’s rally at the Miami Federal Courthouse, Rep. Wilson delivered a humdinger of an attack on SYG. “This legislation,” she said, “is so difficult to even decipher what it means. It applies to some cases, doesn’t apply to another case. The Justice Department is confused. The legislators are confused. Everybody’s confused.” Alas, it appears Rep. Wilson is the most confused of all. If SYG is so onerous, why did she vote for it in the first place?

Gov. Rick Scott sounds like Mr. Rogers when he’s asked about SYG: He likes it just the way it is. He sees no need to amend, much less repeal it. “I appointed a 19-member commission to look at Stand Your Ground,” the governor said in Miami the other day. “They traveled all over the state listening to people and came back with a report that said it’s fine the way it is. I agree and I’m not going to call a special session of the Legislature.” The governor’s SYG task force conclusions, it should be noted, were cooked from the get-go since it included lawmakers who wrote and voted for SYG.

The governor won’t say why he likes SYG, or thinks it’s necessary, which is typical. With Scott you get conclusions, but no hint how he reached them. And once he’s reached them they’re set in stone. So are his explanations. In Miami he repeated word for word what he told the Dream Defenders who are occupying the Capitol. There’s a political calculation, too. Scott got virtually none of the black vote when he ran for governor and is writing it off for next year.

Bishop Victor Curry and the Rev. Al Sharpton, among other civil rights leaders, keep agitating for “justice for Trayvon.” But it’s not clear what that would consist of. The Justice Department probably won’t charge Zimmerman with civil rights violations because he wasn’t a police officer acting under the color of law. He just fancied himself that way. It’s also fairly clear that Zimmerman was no racist, even though he followed Trayvon because he was young, black and wearing a hoodie. He just showed monumentally bad judgment by getting out of his car. Trayvon showed bad judgment by not running to his father’s house.

If only Zimmerman had simply said, when he caught up with Trayvon, “I’m a Neighborhood Watch volunteer, do you live here?”

And if only Trayvon had said, “Let me alone, dude, my dad lives here and I’m going to his house.”

If only. In this case, two of the saddest words in the English language

Read more Michael Putney stories from the Miami Herald

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