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Dan Liljenquist: Silver lining would be discourse on race relations

Published: Monday, Aug. 3 2015 7:28 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)

The George Zimmerman trial and its aftermath have captivated the country, fanning smoldering resentment, igniting fierce emotions, exploding into outrage. Opinions run hot on both sides of this case, but all of us stood on the sidelines as the six jurors, acting as our proxies, weighed the evidence in the balance, deliberating for two days before rendering a unanimous verdict of "not guilty."

I do not envy the jurors' task. While this case seemed to carry the full weight of our collective racial past, these six women had to focus only on the evidence placed before them, immersing themselves into the events of the evening of Feb. 26, 2012. In criminal proceedings, context matters.

Imagine for a moment.

A young man runs, alone, in a dark unfamiliar place, juice and Skittles just purchased from 7-Eleven in his sweat pants pockets, hood pulled over his head to shield from the rain, his girlfriend's voice over his cellphone urging him to get away from the man watching him.

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)

Another man follows, suspiciously aware of unfamiliar people walking alone in the rainy dark, confident in his role as leader of the neighborhood watch, recent burglaries in his community on his mind, frustrated with slow police response to previous calls, legally armed with a 9 mm pistol.

The two meet, enveloped by night, tense words piercing the darkness, leading to muted blows, followed by screams, punctuated by a single gunshot. The young man dies on the ground 70 yards from the townhouse where he was staying.

Placed in this context, I see Trayvon's death as a terrible, avoidable human tragedy, rather than an indictment of our collective race relations in this country. Did race play some role, either consciously or subconsciously, in the Zimmerman/Martin confrontation? Perhaps. Was it the only, or even the overriding, factor? Probably not.

A cut out picture of Trayvon Martin is held aloft by marchers on Times Square Sunday, July 14, 2013, in New York, as they gathered for a protest against the acquittal of volunteer neighborhood watch member George Zimmerman in the 2012 killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla. Demonstrators upset with the verdict protested mostly peacefully in Florida, Milwaukee, Washington, Atlanta and other cities Sunday.  (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle) (Craig Ruttle, ASSOCIATED PRESS) A cut out picture of Trayvon Martin is held aloft by marchers on Times Square Sunday, July 14, 2013, in New York, as they gathered for a protest against the acquittal of volunteer neighborhood watch member George Zimmerman in the 2012 killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla. Demonstrators upset with the verdict protested mostly peacefully in Florida, Milwaukee, Washington, Atlanta and other cities Sunday. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle) (Craig Ruttle, ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The entire legal case against Zimmerman hinged on a subjective exercise, establishing his state of mind when he fired his gun. Prosecutors carried the burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman, given the context of the situation, acted maliciously rather than in self-defense when he pulled the trigger. The jury was simply not persuaded by the prosecution's case.

I can only imagine what it must have been like for Trayvon Martin to die, alone, in the dark, a stranger in a strange place. Or what it was like for his frantic father, knowing nothing of the shooting, to have police respond to his missing person report by showing up with morgue photos of his son. My heart aches for the Martin family. I cannot say that I would feel differently than they do were I in their situation.

My sympathy, however, also extends to George Zimmerman. While technically exonerated, he will never again know the freedom of anonymity or the freedom from animosity. His life — his family, his career, his peace of mind — will likely be shackled to a handful of critical actions he will spend the rest of his days wishing he could go back and change. Here is a man who made a fateful, but not illegal, decision to get out of his truck and follow the kid in the hoodie. Were his motives pure in doing so? Who can really say?

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

It is hard to predict the lasting impact of the Zimmerman trial. Gratefully, the verdict has not led to riots like those following the Rodney King beating acquittals in 1992. If there is a silver lining, perhaps this is it — that we might renew a civil discourse about race without resorting to violence ourselves.

Dan Liljenquist is a former state senator and U.S. Senate candidate.

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