When the case of George Zimmerman, the man who shot and killed an unarmed black teenager in February 2012, first appeared in the news, count me among those who thought a) it was a racially motivated crime; and b) Zimmerman was guilty of at least some form of manslaughter.
I based those conclusions on the swift outcry on social media, as the story was posted with gasping outrage.
It was hard to disagree with headlines focusing on “unarmed black teen coming home from trip to 7-11 store shot by overzealous cop wannabe.” From there, the story was only in my peripheral vision. Although I vaguely recall hearing that the tale might be more complicated than I’d originally thought, I still didn’t think it possible that Zimmerman’s action was justified.
Then, the trial began.
I’m not a trial junkie, but I can get sucked in to watching high-profile cases. And this case was airing almost gavel-to-gavel on MSNBC, the network my kitchen television has been turned to recently. So, whenever I slipped down to the kitchen for a meal, to clean up, to work at my laptop nearby, I’d flick on the set and, boom, be in the middle of a Florida courthouse. Then, a visit from one of my children meant lots of time lazing around, and we’d flick on the TV together and, boom, be in the middle of a Florida courthouse. Riveted. During the State’s case. Which at first seemed as if it were the defense’s case. It was that bad.
Harboring my very shallow understanding of the facts of the case from the little I’d read or heard, I was still in the “he’s guilty” mind-set at the very beginning of my viewing. I expected the state’s presentation to fill out my understanding, to provide foundation for my belief. I mean, c’mon, Zimmerman shot an unarmed teen, with only Skittles and an iced tea in his pockets. I waited for the state to show that Zimmerman had acted on racial animus, that he’d used deadly force without provocation.
It was during the state’s case–the state’s, not the defense’s–that my belief crumbled quickly. Witness after witness, under direct and cross-examination, revealed the following:
- A neighbor identified Trayvon Martin as the aggressor in the fight that ended with George Zimmerman’s gunshot–Martin was straddling Zimmerman, punching him.
- Zimmerman’s injuries were real, if not grievous, and he had no way of knowing when the punching would lead to grievous injury. The state offered absolutely no evidence that Zimmerman could have received those injuries other than the way the defendant described them–as the result of a pounding by Trayvon Martin.
- Zimmerman feared for his life, and, under Florida law, fearing for one’s life can result in justifiable homicide. We all might have wished that Zimmerman had been able to find another way to subdue Trayvon Martin and stop the fight, but Zimmerman’s response fell under the category of self-defense.
- Zimmerman was not a racist. He did not identify Martin as black until asked by an officer on the phone to describe Martin. He did not use a racial slur. Both of these things were misreported by major news outlets. Zimmerman is in the process of suing NBC for the selective editing of the 911 call in order to make it appear as if Zimmerman volunteered that Martin was black, as if that put him in a suspicious category. Zimmerman had a history that included standing up and publicly criticizing the beating of a black man by a white son of a cop. He had multicultural, multiracial roots, leading some news outlets to start identifying him as a “white-Hispanic.” He was an Obama supporter and had mentored some black children, according to friends and family. If the state had evidence that Zimmerman was a racist, they did not present a single second of it, and one would assume they would have presented it often if it was there.
- Zimmerman did not follow Trayvon Martin in order to shoot him. One dispatcher testified that Zimmerman might have misunderstood his request for Zimmerman to keep an eye on the fellow (Martin) he thought was acting suspiciously. Even if one were to believe the state’s unsubstantiated speculation that Zimmerman got out of his car specifically to hunt Martin in order to harm him, merely following someone is not a crime, as the defense pointed out.
- Zimmerman claimed, in his call, that Martin looked as if he were on drugs. It turns out the medical examiner found marijuana in his system. The defense was granted the opportunity to use this information, but they declined to do so.
Many who wanted Zimmerman convicted focus a great deal of attention on his decision to get out of his car and follow Martin, as if this were the first act indicating he was a racist unfairly profiling Martin, the beginning of the cascade of bad events leading to shooting Martin. What they fail to recognize is that the march toward guilt or innocence didn’t begin until the actual fight between the two men started. It doesn’t even matter if Zimmerman provoked it–which again, the state did not demonstrate at all. If Zimmerman felt he was in fear for his life, he had a right to defend himself. And, as stated above, the one eyewitness–the neighbor who came out to see what the ruckus was–testified that Trayvon Martin was on top of George Zimmerman and that the man on the bottom appeared to be the one yelling for help. Zimmerman’s broken nose and scraped head were consistent with having been punched and having his head bashed against the concrete pathway. To those who wish Zimmerman had not acted, I ask: How long would you allow your head to be bashed into concrete before taking action?
The killing of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy. But, as Zimmerman’s lawyer pointed out after the acquittal verdict, the jurors ensured it didn’t turn the event into a travesty. It was already on its way there, with possible prosecutorial misconduct and Department of Justice assistance to the race merchants ginning up outrage.
I started out believing Zimmerman was guilty. The state didn’t prove their case that he was guilty. If anything, they proved the defense’s case that he was innocent.
Libby Sternberg is a novelist.