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In our opinion: The lessons learned from Zimmerman trial

Published: Tuesday, July 16 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

George Zimmerman arrives in circuit court for his trial, along with co-counsel Don West, Monday, June 10, 2013, in Sanford, Fla. Zimmerman is was declared innocent in the shooting of Trayvon Martin . (Orlando Sentinel, Joe Burbank, Associated Press) George Zimmerman arrives in circuit court for his trial, along with co-counsel Don West, Monday, June 10, 2013, in Sanford, Fla. Zimmerman is was declared innocent in the shooting of Trayvon Martin . (Orlando Sentinel, Joe Burbank, Associated Press)

If there is a greater cultural message to be gleaned from the much-publicized trial of George Zimmerman it is that young black men will be treated with suspicion in too many parts of America regardless of how innocent they may be.

Racial profiling continues to be a problem in this country, influencing perceptions and standing as a barrier against fairness and equal treatment.

Unfortunately the tragic incident at hand, in which Zimmerman confronted and ultimately killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin during an altercation, is not the vehicle to further discussions on how to deal with this problem. It was a vehicle to determine whether Zimmerman's actions rose to the level of a crime. In a nation that values the rule of law, such a proceeding should never take on the emotional aspects of revenge. It must confine itself to facts and evidence.

This case must be viewed against the backdrop of Florida's unique "stand your ground" law allowing the use of deadly force when someone feels in imminent danger. It must be viewed against evidence that left the jury feeling there was room for reasonable doubt as to whether Zimmerman ultimately acted in self-defense when he fired his weapon — that the altercation he started had reached a point where he was in danger. The facts about that remain largely in doubt. But with so few witnesses, and with Martin deceased, prosecutors had a difficult time mounting a case.

President Barack Obama speaks during a ceremony to present the 5,000th Daily Point of Light Award to Floyd Hammer and Kathy Hamilton, from Union, Iowa, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, July 15, 2013. White House spokesman Jay Carney says it would be inappropriate for President Obama to express an opinion on how the Justice Department deals with Zimmerman after the neighborhood watch volunteer's acquittal in the shooting of the unarmed 17-year-old last year.  (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) (Carolyn Kaster, AP) President Barack Obama speaks during a ceremony to present the 5,000th Daily Point of Light Award to Floyd Hammer and Kathy Hamilton, from Union, Iowa, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, July 15, 2013. White House spokesman Jay Carney says it would be inappropriate for President Obama to express an opinion on how the Justice Department deals with Zimmerman after the neighborhood watch volunteer's acquittal in the shooting of the unarmed 17-year-old last year. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) (Carolyn Kaster, AP)

That may have been why police in Sanford, Fla., originally decided not to prosecute Zimmerman, a decision that generated the publicity that brought the case into the national spotlight. State Attorney Angela Corey decided after all to bring second-degree murder charges following a public outcry and intense media coverage. In the end there seemed to be plenty of evidence to convict Zimmerman of poor judgment, but not enough to convict him of a crime.

This no doubt is weighing on the minds of those in the Justice Department who now are contemplating federal charges.

Andrew Cohen of The Atlantic said it well when he wrote that such trials, "can never act as moral surrogates to resolve the national debates they trigger." Such trials, he said, "are instead tests of only that limited evidence a judge declares fit to be shared with jurors, who in turn are then admonished daily, hourly even, not to look beyond the corners of what they've seen or heard in court." The judge was not responsible for putting the nation's racial problems on trial. Her job was to assure Zimmerman got a fair trial in regards to the charges brought against him.

FILE - In this June 29, 2012 file photo, George Zimmerman, left, and attorney Don West appear before Circuit Judge Kenneth R. Lester, Jr.  Friday, June 29, 2012, during a bond hearing at the Seminole County Criminal Justice Center in Sanford, Fla.   Zimmerman will try to have the murder charge dismissed under Florida's FILE - In this June 29, 2012 file photo, George Zimmerman, left, and attorney Don West appear before Circuit Judge Kenneth R. Lester, Jr. Friday, June 29, 2012, during a bond hearing at the Seminole County Criminal Justice Center in Sanford, Fla. Zimmerman will try to have the murder charge dismissed under Florida's "stand your ground" self-defense law, his attorney said Thursday, Aug. 9, 2012. Zimmerman is charged with second-degree murder in the shooting of Trayvon Martin. (Orlando Sentinel, Joe Burbank, Pool, Associated Press)

And yet those national debates remain, as does what should be a local debate in Florida over self-defense laws. It is proper to confront attitudes based on skin color that influence judgment. It is not right, however, to turn a criminal trial such as this into a symbol of something it was not intended to confront.

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