Today’s plan had been to publish Blog No. 6, Part II, The Voting Rights Act and the Challenge before Congress. But in light of the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial, and the reactions it produced, it seemed appropriate first to comment briefly on that case. The Voting Rights Act blog will be published later this week.
Reactions to the acquittal of George Zimmerman demonstrated once again the depth of the racial tensions with which we continue to struggle. Protests against the acquittal as racist are almost certainly mistaken: the forensic evidence was conflicting and ambiguous; what little eyewitness testimony there was seemed on balance to favor Zimmerman; the crucial details of the last moments of the fatal encounter remain shrouded in mystery. In short, the prosecution was unable to rebut Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense. Under those circumstances it is difficult to see how a jury could have found guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, irrespective of the race of the participants. (And contrary to some comment, Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground law did not appear to play any role in the verdict.)
On another level, the protests are all too understandable and, in a sense, justifiable. One cannot quarrel with the observation of the Atlanta Mayor, Kasim Reed, that “I find it troubling that a 17-year-old cannot walk to a corner store for candy without putting his life in danger.” Of course it is troubling. And it is also troubling and true that if George Zimmerman had obeyed the advice of the local police and not followed Trayvon Martin, the tragic confrontation would have not occurred. Reed also observed that “I find it more troubling that a citizen could not see a young African-American youth without immediately concluding that he was up to no good.”
Although it is far from clear that Martin’s race played any part in Zimmerman’s decision to pursue him, the decision was an exercise of bad judgment, and the racial difference between the two combatants intensified the feeling that justice–in a broad sense–demanded that the survivor be punished. Nevertheless, justice in the legal sense–that is, as our courts must seek to apply it–depends on rather precise determinations of fact and law. Guilt must be established beyond a reasonable doubt and bad judgment alone does not support a guilty verdict. (Similarly, the initiation of a federal “Hate Crime Inquiry” may be a political necessity, but it will predictably lead to a legal dead end.)
For those who were relieved by Zimmerman’s acquittal, the occasion should not be one of celebration, but compassion for Martin’s family and, for the protesters, disagreement but respect and sympathy. Moreover, that disagreement should be leavened by a common goal of seeking to make race relations in this country less troubled: a complex task, but an important one. It is a hopeful sign, but surely not a reason for complacency, that, although we are in the midst of a “long hot summer,” the protest demonstrations were with few exceptions orderly and did not escalate into violence.