It didn’t take long after George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin for the event to be portrayed as the act of a vigilante or a one-man lynching party. A mug shot of a surly, mentally detached-looking Zimmerman juxtaposed to a ninth-grade yearbook photo of bright-eyed, smiling, young Martin became staples of reports on the story and, in a way, became the story itself. The president of the United States weighed in with a comment that if he had a son, he “would look like Trayvon.” And that was the story that was reported for the next year and a half – and which continues to be reported today, even after Zimmerman’s acquittal.
It is the story of a dissatisfied, Walter Mitty, police-wannabe, pudgy, white guy (who parenthetically identifies himself as Hispanic) who saw an opportunity to take out his frustration and racist hatred on a helpless, hapless, young African-American child innocently walking home from the local convenience market one evening.
In this story, Zimmerman – whose mother is inconveniently Peruvian with a black grandmother, and who has a decidedly non-racist history (but luckily enough for the storytellers has a white-sounding name) and a Florida license to carry a concealed handgun (which proves he has self-esteem issues) – is a self-appointed “neighborhood watch commander” (never mind that he was elected by his neighbors) patrolling the streets in search of a victim when he spots young Trayvon Martin, an African-American youth in a hoodie, walking alone, so he draws his gun and confronts the youth.
No wait, he’s too clever for that. First he calls the police to report a “suspicious person” in the neighborhood. This was obviously a way of building a cover story and establishing himself as just a concerned citizen. Then he draws his gun and confronts his victim.
No, still too obvious. Instead, he keeps his gun concealed and stalks his victim – while still talking to the police on the phone. When the police order him to stay in his truck and not follow the “suspect” who has run and disappeared down a sidewalk between houses, Zimmerman ignores them and continues stalking his prey.
Wait, wrong again. Zimmerman had already gotten out of his truck and walked a short way up the sidewalk looking for a house number so he could tell police exactly where the suspect had disappeared when the officer on the phone told him he “didn’t need” to follow the suspect. So Zimmerman obeyed the officer and began heading back to his truck, ending the call, but asking that police contact him when they arrived so he could direct them to where the suspect had disappeared.
That’s when the murderer’s plan really came together. Moments after hanging up with police, Zimmerman cleverly managed to lure the innocent black youth out of hiding and instigate a violent confrontation in which he, the pudgy 5’8″ white guy, sustained significant injuries to his face and the back of his head before cold-bloodedly executing the unarmed, 5’11″, 160-pound African-American child with a single shot from his hidden 9mm pistol.
Police arrived moments later. They noted Zimmerman’s injuries, rendered first aid to the wounded teenager and transported the handcuffed killer to police headquarters where they interrogated him for five hours before releasing him on a bizarre technicality in Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law which says that when a killer claims self-defense, he can only be arrested if there is some evidence indicating he is lying.
The next day, Zimmerman returned with police to the scene, where he took them through a moment-by-moment re-enactment of the incident and where police interviewed various witnesses who corroborated Zimmerman’s story. Zimmerman was allowed to remain free but ordered not to go far in case some new evidence surfaced that might put his story in doubt.
That evidence soon arrived in the form of Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and the media who rallied mobs of angry citizens – and the president of the United States – demanding “Justice for Trayvon,” meaning, of course, the heads of Zimmerman and the police officers who refused to arrest him.
A special prosecutor was appointed who eschewed the traditional Grand Jury process and instead had Zimmerman arrested and charged with second degree murder – in spite of the lack of evidence. Famous attorney and law professor Alan Dershowitz described the indictment as “thin” and called it “irresponsible and unethical.” He suggested that the prosecutor had acted out of political motivations.
On July 13, 2013, a jury of 6 women, 5 white and one “non-white,” – all but one of them mothers – found George Zimmerman not guilty both of second-degree murder and of the lesser charge of manslaughter.
The verdict was immediately criticized by the media and politicians. Predicted widespread rioting and violence did not materialize, though there were a few isolated incidents of vandalism, looting and violence in the name of retribution for the verdict. The possibility of federal civil rights charges has not been ruled out by Attorney General Eric Holder, who took the opportunity of an address to the NAACP to challenge so-called “Stand Your Ground” laws.
In the end, those who accuse George Zimmerman of being a one-man lynch mob, and who continue to call for an actual lynching of Zimmerman – both by mobs and by the authorities – are now calling for the lynching of a self-defense standard that has been settled law in the U.S. since the 1920s. Today’s state Stand Your Ground laws like Florida’s are based in the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Brown v. U.S. in which Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. stated; “The right of a man to stand his ground and defend himself when attacked with a deadly weapon, even to the extent of taking his assailant’s life, depends upon whether he reasonably believes that he is in immediate danger of death or grievous bodily harm from his assailant, and not upon the detached test whether a man of reasonable prudence, so situated, might not think it possible to fly with safety or to disable his assailant, rather than kill him. …”
Justice Holmes went on to say; “Detached reflection cannot be demanded in the presence of an uplifted knife.” Or, it could be reasonably added, an uplifted fist or conveniently located slab of sidewalk.
George Zimmerman will live the rest of his life with the memory of that evening. He still faces the possibility of federal prosecution and civil litigation, as well as the very real threat of someone taking personal retribution. Only he will ever know what was in his mind and heart in that terrible moment when he pulled the trigger. For the rest of us, we must not allow some doubt about George Zimmerman’s motivations leave us with no option if we’re ever faced with a similar choice of our own.
Stand Your Ground must continue to stand as the law of the land.