pic: Amber Stephens
by Subhash Kateel
Trayvon Martin’s murder, his murderer’s acquittal and everything
we are seeing unfold now is making me question many things. What is common
about common sense? Is reasonable doubt really reasonable? Does great power truly
require great responsibility? Is killing people really wrong? But regardless of
what side you take on the murder of Trayvon Martin, even if the fact that there
are sides to this ordeal personally horrifies me, aspects of this case give
everyone a right to question their faith in the system.
Our collective faith should have been shaken much earlier. Over
the years we’ve watched as civilians
became terrorists, wallets
became guns, victims became perpetrators, human
beings
became aliens and the innocent became guilty in order to justify
murder. Few things, however, can shake your faith like an adult murdering a teenager
who was walking home from the store.
But faith in the system persists because someone always
manages to make excuses for injustice.  “Was
that 17-year-old child really a victim or a suspect?” “Maybe his murder was
justified.” “Even if it was wrong, the law doesn’t say it was illegal.”
In this case, the excuses are based less on facts and more on
a faith in pundits, personalities and professionals who have been wrong about
virtually everything, from where our money should go to how many carbs we
should consume to which country we should go to war with. Yet we entrusted them
to tell us how to feel about the murder of a child.
I remember when the case was far simpler.  The week the case went public, I remember
talking to Floridians from all walks of life who mostly gasped at the horror of
a high school student being killed and his murderer not being arrested.  Who wouldn’t? Common sense dictated that the
killing of a teen was a GOD-awful thing.
Common sense also dictated that a person trying to defend themselves
would’ve behaved the opposite of how George Zimmerman behaved the night he
killed Trayvon. Ask Vic Grechniew, a firearms instructor from Central Florida who
teaches the classes that George Zimmerman would have taken before receiving his
concealed weapons permit. “If Zimmerman would have stayed in his car, none of
this would have happened,” he told me last year and reiterated again last week on my show.
But common sense stopped being common when self-defense started meaning killing
someone you were pursuing.
The debate on the reliably notorious Stand Your Ground laws
never helped.  If anything, it may have harmed
the case
irreparably. It’s easy to forget now that Stand Your Ground
started off as another excuse for injustice and incompetence.  It was an excuse used first by the Sanford
police department and then the original prosecutor in the case, State Attorney Norm
Wolfinger, to explain away
improper investigations
(e.g. not interviewing witnesses immediately,
securing crime scene or testing Zimmerman for drugs or alcohol) as well as the
failure to arrest and charge a murder suspect in a state where people have been
arrested immediately for letting
their pants sag
.
What started out as an excuse transformed into a mantra recited
over and over again by the debate-o-sphere (even supporters of Trayvon) and imprinted
into the minds of everyone, including potential jurors.  “George Zimmerman will never do
prison time because Stand Your Ground laws gave him the right to kill Trayvon
Martin.”
But everyone, even legal experts, were only reading half
of Florida’s laws
and allowing that half-reading to become conventional
wisdom. The central question in this case should have never been whether George
Zimmerman had the right to stand his ground on the night he killed Trayvon
Martin. Instead, everyone should have asked if George Zimmerman provoked a
confrontation with the teen before killing him. If so, then he should have
never been able to justify his murder of Trayvon Martin in court.
Even though Florida’s Stand Your Ground provisions are vague,
badly written and poorly placed, they have the same exceptions as non-Stand Your
Ground states like New York. The
law explicitly
says
that if you provoke an encounter with someone, you cannot claim you
are defending yourself unless you are in “imminent danger of death or great
bodily harm” AND exhaust every means
available to remove yourself from that confrontation.
Because talking heads were busy barely knowing this part of
the law exists (except for writers like Alafair
Burke
) they failed to report one of the biggest injustices in the case;
this vitally important exception to claiming self-defense barely made it into
the public conversation, the courtroom discussion, the closing arguments or the
jury deliberations.  In fact it never
made it
into the jury
instructions
! Zimmerman’s defense attorneys managed to keep the Florida
Stand Your Ground provisions, which
they never even brought up
in court, in
the jury instructions while blocking prosecutors
attempt to explain in those instructions that you can’t claim self-defense if
you are the “initial aggressor.” What the jury was left to consider was Zimmerman’s
right to stand his ground when he
killed Trayvon Martin but not his responsibility
to avoid provoking a fight with him. If, as Juror B37 told
Anderson Cooper
, half of the jurors were truly confused about Stand Your Ground
but still wished to convict Zimmerman, his fate may have been different had they
been correctly instructed on the law.
That wasn’t the only injustice in the courtroom.  According
to new revelations
, the jury wasn’t as “sequestered” as we thought.  And while Zimmerman may have been tried
before a jury of his peers, Juror B37 never seemed to view Trayvon Martin as
her peer.  Out of six jurors, none was African
American despite the fact that Sanford and Seminole County are 30%
and 12%
Black respectively.  Oddly
enough, at least some of the blame for such a melanin-deficient jury rests with
the prosecution, who allegedly struck one of the only potential Black jurors
from consideration because he
watched Fox news
.
From the beginning, putting faith in “special” prosecutors,
led by State Attorney Angela Corey, meant pinning hopes for justice on someone
accused of committing her own share of egregious injustice. To be sure, few
people know how to put someone claiming self-defense in prison like Angela
Corey. Not only did Corey manage to win a 20-year
conviction
against Marissa Alexander for shooting at a wall instead of an
abusive husband, she also sent 65
year-old army vet
Ronald Thompson to prison for 20 years for shooting at
the ground (he is now out on appeal). She also made a name for herself trying
juveniles as adults
.  She
allegedly did this by overcharging defendants with few resources and little
community support for offenses that come with stiff penalties, pushing them
into taking a guilty plea and punishing them if they don’t.  For example, discharging a firearm in the
course of a felony in Florida, even if no one is hurt, unleashes a 20-year
mandatory minimum prison sentence.
However, George Zimmerman had a way better legal team, more
community support and a far bigger war chest than most people prosecuted by
Corey and had zero likelihood of ever copping a plea.  By overcharging him with second-degree murder
as opposed to manslaughter, which many
legal scholars think
better reflects what he actually did, Corey’s team put
themselves in a position where they had to paint George Zimmerman as a horrible
person with evil intent and hate in his heart.
If they failed, some juror was bound to sympathize with him and at least one did.
Zimmerman did deserve to be charged with more than murder or
manslaughter.  It’s not unusual for a
defendant in criminal court to be charged with different crimes by different
agencies. But the Justice Department, who spent tons of resources investigating
George Zimmerman for civil rights violations could have charged Zimmerman more
easily for the financial
crimes he committed
while trying to withdraw the small fortune he made via
his legal defense fund from his PayPal account without the Feds and his judge
finding out. Even though Zimmerman was caught
on tape
committing the federal crime called “structuring,” (punishable by
five years in prison) it is yet another crime he may walk for.
Only a fool could watch all of this unfold and not lose
faith in the system.  But we are also
losing faith in our own ability to talk to each other about race. The fact is,
George Zimmerman made a mistake when he killed Trayvon Martin by assuming that
Trayvon was a suspect when he wasn’t.
That is something even his defense concedes.  There is also no dispute that George
Zimmerman is not a Neo-Nazi skinhead.  He
did disparage “Mexicans” on his old
Myspace page
but he also spoke out
for an elderly Black man who was assaulted after being called the “n” word by a
Sanford police lieutenant’s son.  But he
never needed to be a skinhead or a bad person to make a fatal error that ended a
teenager’s life.
All Zimmerman needed was to be a little racist to assume
that a kid with a hoodie and skinny jeans “looked” suspicious. The police, who
Zimmerman spoke out against previously, only had to be a little racist in
believing Zimmerman was a victim who was hit first by Trayvon (no one ever
corroborated that “first punch”).  The
prosecutors only had to be a little racist when deciding not to charge
Zimmerman. The jury only had to be a little racist in believing Zimmerman’s
fantastic Wild West self-defense scenario more than Rachel Jeantel.  And the public only needed a little racism to
believe that skinny jeans and a hoodie make a thug.
unless you think he looks suspicious too
The criminal justice system works (or not) by compounding
people’s little racisms to create big injustices: the belief that people who
smoke crack are
worse than
the ones who snort coke, that some high school students are
mischievous while others are
criminal
, that witnesses who don’t sound like Anderson Cooper are less
credible or that someone who paid their debt to society cannot
serve on a jury
.  Those small
assumptions combine to make the criminal justice system profoundly,
indisputably and destructively racist.
It will remain so as long as good people believe that acknowledging
their little racisms makes them horrible people rather than believing that
denying those little racisms  makes our system horrible.
We all suffer the scary consequences of a horrible system.  The misapplication of self-defense laws mixed
with the misuse of mandatory sentences creates real incentives for people
defending themselves to kill so no witness can put them away for 20 years.  Hotheads have incentives to pick fatal fights
so long as they create a plausible enough reason to claim self-defense.  People can be acquitted or convicted based on
misreading of the law and misinterpretation by a jury.
But while losing faith in a horrible system makes sense, losing
faith in our ability to confront it doesn’t.
After the verdict, when cynics expected riots, youth commandeered cars to
peacefully
occupy
the Florida State Capitol. Instead of creating race wars, people created Tumblr pages
discussing white privilege.  There are
several more things we can do to fix the system we should no longer trust.
Dream Defenders and Power U at State Capitol
1.  Change the law but change all of it. The
push to change laws shouldn’t just prevent more Trayvons, it should prevent
more Oscar
Grants
, Marissa Alexanders, etc. (the list goes on).  Despite my
doubts
about the role of Stand Your Ground laws in the murder of Trayvon
Martin, our self-defense laws do have to be re-examined. But that is not enough.
No law should give
rogue law enforcement officers
the power to kill the unarmed and innocent
without ever being held responsible.  No
jury should ever be able to consider the parts of the law that give you the
right to defend yourself without considering your responsibility to not provoke
violent fights.  No prosecutor should
ever have more power than a judge to dish out harsh punishments that don’t fit
defendants’ crimes. No person who has paid their debt to society should be
prevented from serving on a jury.
2.  Speak out for Marissa Alexander.  There is no reason to have faith in a system
that puts a victim of domestic violence in prison for 20 years for shooting a
wall but gives a man who
decapitates someone
a 15-year sentence.
No prosecutor who failed to convict Zimmerman while managing to throw
several books at Marissa Alexander should spend the last year doubling
down
on misinformation rather than restoring justice.  People that stood up for Trayvon must learn about and start
speaking out for Marissa Alexander.
3.  Prosecutors must fear voters who believe in
justice.
  In states like Florida,
prosecutors (state attorneys) are the most powerful elected position that few people
care to vote for.  They often have more
power than judges and their actions help define how just or unjust the entire
system is in their district.  A
prosecutor that cared about justice and feared their constituents would have
charged George Zimmerman immediately, wouldn’t have charged Marissa Alexander
at all or would charged her with a crime that wouldn’t carry a mandatory 20-year
sentence.  Prosecutors across the state
that care about justice and fear their constituents would be more likely to
investigate corrupt cops and less likely to encourage the school to prison
pipeline or the overcharging of defendants.  But they will only fear their constituents if
we make getting them in and out of office as important as electing a President,
Governor or Mayor.
4.  We must support fresh faces pushing new
ideas
.  The work being done at the
capitol by Dream
Defenders
and Power
U
doesn’t just regurgitate talking points. it captures the imagination while
creating new conversations.  Members of
the Florida Rights Restoration
Coalition
are forcing us to rethink the way we treat returning citizens who
have paid their debt to society.  Sybrina Fulton
is no longer a mother mourning the death of her child, she is actively doing
the hard work of standing up for change.
The sooner we nourish new ideas the quicker old horrible systems will
fade away.
5. We have to start
talking and listening to each other
.
The culture wars that this case created made listening to shock jocks a
stand-in for real conversation.  A little
bit of all of us needs to change for us to restore and rebuild a society we can
believe in. Yes we have a right to lose faith in our system but we also have a
responsibility to not rest until it is fixed.
But fixing it means having faith in our ability to have hard
conversations with one another.