A Note to a Young Friend about the Trayvon Martin Killing

iStock_000020365058XSmallThe following note in italics appeared in a thread on my Facebook wall after I posted the “Not Guilty” verdict in George Zimmerman’s trial. It’s from a young lady who is a former neighbor whom I’ve known since she was in elementary school:

Aliza-  I would really like to get your full opinion on this. I am outraged and upset and disappointed in our justice system. If you don’t feel comfortable posting it here please send me a message. Since the O.J. trial I have not felt such a strong need to boycott our judiciary system. I know I am young but this seriously make me want to rebel.

Dear Casey,

First of all, let’s just get out of the way that you are and will always be 11 years old in my mind when we lived across the street from each other 15 years ago.  I am in complete denial that you are now old enough to remember the O.J. trial, but flattered you’d seek out my opinion on a matter of this complexity and depth of soul.

When I was in high school, I seriously considered a career as a lawyer.  One afternoon, I was having lunch with my grandfather, and discussed this with him.  He asked what kind of attorney I’d like to be, and I (of course) said I wanted to practice criminal law.  It was dramatic and smart, and seemed to merge my love for theater, justice and arguing all in one.  Then he asked me the following question:

“What would you do if someone wanted you to defend him, and you felt sure he was guilty of the crime?  Would you accept him as a client?”

I stopped and considered, and said I didn’t think I could do that.  How could I in good conscience defend someone I thought was guilty?

He answered, “This is how.  In our justice system, a person is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. It’s the prosecutor’s job to do his best to prove your client’s guilt.  If he does his job to the best of his ability, and you do your job to the best of yours – if your client is truly guilty – you will lose your case.  That is the way the system is set up to work.”

Right then, I knew I didn’t have the stomach for a career in criminal law.  Not all things are equal.  I knew I would win some of my cases if I did my job well, and that in some of those cases, a guilty person would be set free.  The converse option wasn’t any more appealing to me – being a prosecutor who, when up against a less talented defense attorney, might end up putting an innocent person in jail.

But that conversation with my grandfather created the lens through which I viewed famous/high-profile trials since, particularly the ones that were especially charged with racial and/or sexual overtones – any trial with significant consequences for our society’s fabric of social justice.  I didn’t watch the whole trial, but in the Trayvon Martin case, I’m less inclined to blame the justice system than the prosecuting attorney first, with institutionalized racism coming in as a close second.

I’m the farthest thing from an expert in legal matters, but in my mind, the justice system worked the way it was designed to, and tragically, a person who took the life of an innocent kid was found not guilty of murder or manslaughter.  The defense team did a better job than the prosecution.  No one knows (nor does anyone have the right to know) what went on during jury deliberations.  Zimmerman is now the only person still living who knows for sure what happened the night he shot Trayvon Martin.  Most people know Zimmerman’s neighborhood had seen a rash of burglaries, and was on high alert as a result.  Most people know now Trayvon Martin did nothing to warrant being followed.  He had every right to be where he was, when he was.  Most people know now that in Zimmerman’s 911 call, police told him to stop following Martin, yet he continued pursuit.  Most people know now that Zimmerman had a history of run-ins with the law and of violence.  No one doubts that had Zimmerman not had a gun – legally, I might add – Martin would be alive.  (This is pure speculation on my part, but I’m guessing if George Zimmerman didn’t have a gun, he wouldn’t have had the cojones to follow a large teenaged boy around in the dark at ALL, let alone confront him.)  Most people assume (myself included) that had Trayvon been white, Zimmerman wouldn’t have followed him in the first place.

Judge Debra Nelson was tough and held fast.  From what I saw, she didn’t allow the defense team to get away with much, if anything.  The jury was given the option of convicting Zimmerman of manslaughter (which is personally, what I thought would happen,) in addition to murder – significantly increasing options for a conviction.  Many people with much more in the way of legal smarts than I have felt the defense made plenty of mistakes that were never truly exploited or even seized upon by the prosecution.  The jurors were given very explicit instructions on how to conduct deliberations.  They spent a almost 17 hours and came back with a unanimous verdict of ‘not guilty.’  All of that tells me that either the prosecution didn’t have a case under Florida law, or they did have a case but failed miserably to convince the jury of it.

It’s an imperfect system, of course, as it was designed by humans who are also famously flawed.  It’s meant, Casey, to prevent verdicts based upon emotion, and encourage verdicts based upon proven fact and the law.  When I think about it, that is indeed how I want it.  So rather than rebel against the justice system (I’m not sure how you’d do that, anyhow) perhaps take heart in the searing outrage and profound sadness so many have expressed about the verdict.  Perhaps be encouraged that this case has shone such a bright spotlight on the myriad of factors leading up to the trial in the first place.  Maybe be hopeful that people will pay better attention to their elected officials who have the power to enact laws like “Stand Your Ground” that in fairness, make it easier for one to protect oneself in one’s own home in Florida without being prosecuted, but also give cover to overzealous cop wannabes like George Zimmerman.  Maybe Trayvon’s senseless, brutal killing will strike a much needed blow to racial profiling.

Conversely, the realist in me feels compelled to mention the chance that this will fade in our collective consciousness until the next heart-breaking travesty is brought to our national attention.  People like you, though, give me hope that it won’t.

Aliza Worthington grew up in Brooklyn, NY, and now lives in Baltimore. She began writing in 2009 at the age of 40. Sometimes her writing follows The Seinfeld Model of “no learning, no hugging.” Other times it involves lots of both. She blogs about Life, Liberty and Happiness at “The Worthington Post.” Her work also appears in Catonsville Patch, Kveller, and has been featured in the Community Spotlight section of Daily Kos under the username “Horque.” Her writing has also landed in the “Winner’s Circle” on Midlife Collage twice. Follow her on Twitter at @AlizaWrites.

Image via iStockphoto/John M. Chase

  • Max Olivewood

    Great post! I would add that one of the beauties, if not the transcendent beauty of our judicial system is that within it, it is considered a far greater injustice that an innocent person be found guilty than a guilty one be acquitted. The legal procedures are, therefore, set up to make conviction more difficult than acquittal. The jury knows less than the public about any given (high profile) case, and jurors may only consider the parts of the evidence that the judge (law) allows to be admitted, which is not everything. Consequently, what might be obvious to us, the paper reading cable watching public, might not appear so in the muted lights of the jury room. This makes us all safer, and the occasional infuriating acquittal is the price we pay for that safety. I got no beef with that!

  • Justin Burch

    One point you have not addressed is the grotesque distortions in the media presented as “facts” about the case many of which you yourself are quoting. It began with the doctored and edited 911 call and continued throughout the course of the trail (which I personally listened too about 90% of, as well living in Florida at the time of the event and following on many local reports).

    Several points in your own blog simply here do not jive with the evidence presented in court but do come out the same as well proven media distortions. For example, you state police told Zimmerman to stop following but that is factually incorrect if you take the entire 911 telephone conversation in context (without the editing that was done by the media) as it was presented in court. A 911 operator (not a policeman) told Zimmerman they did not need him to follow the suspicious man at that point in the conversation but later on, when Trayvon moved into an area where Zimmerman in his vehicle, or any other vehicle could follow, the conversation changed with a request that Zimmerman keep him in sight until police arrived.

    A second example of where you are wrong about the facts: Trayvon was not walking down the street minding his own business. He was walking under the eaves of the houses weaving in and out in what was a suspicious fashion to Zimmerman. In retrospect, given the explanation of Trayvon’s girlfriend, Trayvon was walking under the eaves to reduce the amount of rain he had falling on him. But within the context of a neighbourhood with multiple break-ins this IS highly suspicious behaviour to a neighbourhood watchman.

    The third thing that came out of the trial was clear physical and eyewitness evidence that at the time of the shooting Trayvon was on top of Zimmerman beating him. Everyone who thinks Zimmerman was guilty keeps talking about what Zimmerman did, how Zimmerman provoked, stalked ect. But what possible justification is there for jumping on a man and knocking him down and beating the crap out of him? THAT is what Trayvon did. He jumped Zimmerman, and was clearly seen beating the crap out of him. Trayvon was on top. Trayvon was beating on Zimmerman. Zimmerman was screaming for help. Why is Trayvon never held responsible for this decision to resort to violence? If Trayvon had made a decision to simply ignore Zimmerman and go straight home, or even get off Zimmerman and walk away after Trayvon got Zimmerman on the ground, Trayvon would still be alive. You say no one knows but we do know for certain Trayvon WAS on top and Trayvon WAS beating on Zimmerman.

    Of course, none of this got reported in the national media that had a need to distort everything and turn it into an antiblack race case even when there was no evidence race played a part in this for Zimmerman and lots of evidence that Zimmerman was NOT racist presented in trial including black neighbours who testified on Zimmerman’s behalf. The only evidence of racism that did come out in the trial was that Trayvon used racist derogatory terminology to describe Zimmerman as a “white cracker” in the phone conversation with his girlfriend just prior to his death. The media either did not reprot this at all or insisted this was just normal “black” talk and meaningless. Why is Trayvon’s use of “white cracker” meaningless when if Zimmerman had ever used the term “nigger” which he never did, that would have been reported as proof of Zimmerman’s racism.

    Your description of Zimmerman’s past also does not jive with the facts as presented in court. Zimmerman had a few minor brushes with the law, NOT violent ones at all, and some financial issues, but he was not the violent criminal with the long record as you present it. That is simply wrong. On the other hand Trayvon DID have charges of violent assault on a white man, he was suspended from school for violence and fighting in school at the time of the attack, and blood work done at autopsy proved Trayvon was stoned on marijuana at the time of his death. The judge in the case ruled that Trayvon’s past brushes with the law should not be presented to the jury because it was too damaging to the prosecution’s case and Trayvon’s past, like that of a rape victim, should not be part of the trial.

    The case was not lost by prosecutors. The case was lost because there was no case. People who count on the media to get the facts were misled by MSNBC, ABC, and CNN which simply did not report the case accurately and instead relied on a biased view that made it into a race case it never should have been. There was also direct interference with the case by the White House who had the DOJ pressure Florida to charge Zimmerman even though there was no evidence to charge him on and the police who had investigated had already determined that.

    One final note. “Stand your ground”, which you bring up, was not even part of this case. Zimmerman did not use “stand your ground” as his defense because the evidence showed so clearly that this was a straight up case of self defense. Trayvon was on top of Zimmerman beating the crap out of him. Physical evidence, and eye witness testimony prove that. The only time “stand your ground” played a part in the case was the prosecutors tried to prove Zimmerman was a liar because he told FOX he did not know about “stand your ground” but Zimmerman had taken some community college law classes about it. Even that did not show Zimmerman was a liar because the term “stand your ground” is a media term not a real term used in the law books about the law when Zimmerman took his class.

    If you are shocked upset and disappointed in the jury verdict, you need to consider your information sources. They sold you a bill of goods that was utter garbage and they distorted the facts. They lied to you.

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