By Bill Blum
When we think of real-life “perfect crimes,” we usually turn our attention to coldblooded, carefully planned slayings like the presumed contract killing of Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa, or moldy old homicides like the 1947 Black Dahlia mutilation in Los Angeles, or the 1996 Las Vegas drive-by carried out on rapper Tupac Shakur. Whether executed by firearm (Shakur), cutting instrument (Dahlia) or sealed in tons of cement (as lore has it in Hoffa’s case), such crimes achieved their perverse perfection because they remain unsolved whodunits with no identifiable suspects.
In the minds of millions of Americans, the slaying of 17-year-old African-American Trayvon Martin is also a perfect crime, but for entirely different reasons. Martin’s death is no whodunit. We know that George Zimmerman, a man of mixed white and Hispanic heritage, killed Martin, and we know when and how he did the deed—by firing a bullet at close range to Martin’s heart during the course of an altercation that Zimmerman had set in motion on the evening of Feb. 26, 2012, as he followed Martin while the Florida teen walked to his father’s home, carrying a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea and wearing a hoodie to shield himself from the rain.
We also know more generally that nationwide, a mere 5 percent of murder trials end in acquittals. Winning a murder prosecution may be hard work, but it isn’t like winning the lottery.
How, then, for anyone except those who believe he committed no crime, did Zimmerman and his lawyers secure a not-guilty verdict on both second-degree murder and manslaughter charges?
Although it’s tempting to answer that racism alone explains the trial’s outcome, digging a little deeper reveals an even more disturbing three-dimensional picture:
1. This Is Florida: Forget the bright lights and cosmopolitan glamor of Miami or the open-mindedness and laid-back lifestyles of Key West. Florida as a whole is still the Deep South, and like other Southern venues it has a well-oiled and efficient criminal justice system geared toward convicting African-Americans accused of crimes, not to seeing them as victims.
The statistics tell a chilling tale: According to the Census Bureau, African-Americans comprise 16.6 percent of Florida’s population, but the state’s Department of Corrections notes that they account for 31.5 percent of its inmates. As reported by the New York-based Brennan Center for Justice, blacks in Florida are arrested at a rate 2.9 times greater than other racial groups, and are 35 percent more likely to be convicted of a felony or misdemeanor than whites who have similar socioeconomic status, live in areas with similar crime rates and have similar criminal records.
Juvenile offenders, regardless of race, receive especially tough treatment in Florida, which charges children criminally as adults and sentences them to adult prisons and jails far more frequently than any other state in the country.
2. A Botched Prosecution Narrative: None of the statistics, of course, prove that the prosecutors assigned to the Zimmerman trial were biased against Martin either because of his race or youth, or that they didn’t put forward spirited efforts. What the figures do reflect, however, is a legal culture and context in which the prosecution team seemed uncertain, out of place and out of sync almost from the opening statements.
As any experienced lawyer will tell you, framing the terms of a trial’s narrative—establishing a “theory of the case,” some practitioners call it—is the key to victory. Here, the prosecution’s goal should have been to secure the moral high ground by keeping the narrative simple, arguing that this was a case of unprovoked racial profiling that resulted in death solely because Zimmerman was carrying a concealed weapon and decided against the admonition of a police dispatcher to pursue Martin, initiate a confrontation and take the law into his own hands.
The goal of the defense was the exact opposite—to deny the role of race and raise reasonable doubt by complicating the trial, turning the narrative into a contest over such details as which side’s witnesses more credibly identified the voice heard screaming for help on the 911 tape of a neighbor’s phone call that was played in court (a determination that trial Judge Debra Nelson had ruled was so speculative it was beyond the scope of expert testimony), who was on top at what point in the fracas and whether the inconsistencies in Zimmerman’s public pretrial statements were material or minor.
Restricted by Nelson as to what they could say to the jury, the prosecutors made no mention of race in the trial except for a brief reference to profiling during opening statements. Instead of driving home its own theory, at nearly every critical turn the prosecution bought into the defense narrative, allowing Zimmerman’s attorneys, aided by Florida’s “stand-your-ground” self-defense law, to portray their client as the victim and to cast him—instead of Martin—as worthy of sympathy before a jury that included no African-Americans.
Any question as to which side’s narrative prevailed has been definitively laid to rest by the woman identified as Juror B37, who in a post-trial interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper disclosed not only that she believed Zimmerman’s “heart was in the right place,” but that she also had “no doubt” that it was Zimmerman’s voice on the tape, or that Zimmerman feared for his life when he fired the fatal shot.
3. This Is America: It would be easy but ultimately wrong to see the trial as the product solely of Southern or Florida justice, or as the result of a pair of prosecutors getting outfoxed by savvy defense lawyers. The truth is that Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s trial are uniquely American events.
It isn’t only the Florida system that refuses to see the continuing imprint of race, but the nation’s legal system as a whole, reaching all the way to the Supreme Court, which only last month gutted the Voting Rights Act in an opinion (Shelby County v. Holder) that cynically suggested racial injustice in America was a thing of the distant past.
It isn’t of course, not by a long shot, or—as the Zimmerman trial illustrates—by a shot to the heart.
AP/Gary W. Green, Pool
George Zimmerman leaves court with his family after his not guilty verdict was read in Seminole Circuit Court in Sanford, Fla., on Saturday.