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Lessons of Martin shooting unclear

To the surprise of pretty much no one, former neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, poster-guy for Florida’s flawed “stand your ground” law, will officially not face federal civil rights charges.

The non-news came this week as the Justice Department closed its investigation into the infamous shooting death of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teenager Zimmerman spotted walking through a Sanford neighborhood on a rainy night three years ago and assumed the worst.

As the world knows by now, Zimmerman called police and followed Martin, who was ultimately shot dead as the two scuffled.

Zimmerman told police he fired in self-defense after the 17-year-old attacked him. Jurors considering a second-degree murder charge in state court said not guilty. And even if you understood the confines of the law that jury was duty-bound to follow, this seemed incomprehensible.

How is it a man can start this kind of interaction with an innocent person and be not guilty of anything in his death — even if Martin turned on the stranger who pursued him?

Some people who can’t let go of the inherent wrongness in this — a teenager walking home from a convenience store with his Skittles, ultimately shot dead — pinned unrealistic hope to a federal investigation into, among other things, whether it was a essentially a hate crime.

Standards for proving an incident was racially motivated are high and should be. You might assume — intuit, even — that Zimmerman was suspicious of this tall teenager in a hoodie in part because he was black. But there is no hard evidence to prove this.

(And by the way, before anyone argues this was not a stand your ground case in state court, remember that Zimmerman’s right to “stand his ground” with “no duty to retreat” was part of the instructions read to the jury. And at least one juror said afterward that stand your ground was one of the things considered.)

Zimmerman has not gone quietly on to live his life but instead seems on a reckless course. He has not always appeared sobered by the fact that someone died by his hand, even if he believes he had no choice. (His post-acquittal tour of a factory of the manufacturer of the gun he used that night, for example.) He is so known here that we follow his every exploit closely, too closely, even when he gets stopped for speeding. He has faced allegations of domestic altercations with his estranged wife and two subsequent girlfriends, none of which stuck.

It’s surprising to me that people who care about him have not persuaded him to go somewhere he might have a chance for something like a normal life, now that the justice system is done with him in this.

So what’s the fallout? Did Trayvon Martin die for nothing?

Maybe it’s only this: Now more people are looking more closely at other tragedies that raise questions about race and whether the justice system values different victims differently. With a post-Zimmerman eye, people are especially paying closer attention to the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police.

Attorney General Eric Holder said last week that the tragedy of Trayvon Martin “sparked a painful but necessary dialogue throughout the country.” Maybe that’s water on a rock. Or maybe its the beginning of seeing more clearly.

Sue Carlton is a columnist for the Tampa Bay Times.

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