News reports and opinion pieces have been full of comparisons between the George Zimmerman and O.J. Simpson trials on murder charges. I jumped on that bandwagon with my “Déja Vu All Over Again” post on this blog.
A good friend and the most experienced and knowledgeable non-lawyer person on courtroom proceedings I know, however, begged to differ.
Other than public perception, she said, there is no comparison between the two trials.
I certainly agree that public perception is a common denominator and huge factor in measuring the Zimmerman trial against Simpson’s. But I believe other similarities are present, too.
One is the prosecution’s less than stellar, even ineffectual, performance. Another is that both defendants had juries of their peers so far as racial makeup is concerned. Both trials were highly emotional, polarizing, fraught with the role racism played or might have played in the case, and both were scored by a wide swath of media and pundits as if they were sporting events.
Unlike sporting events, however, in which few other than team fans care much about the outcome, just about everybody who knew about Nicole Brown’s and Ron Goldman’s murders and Simpson’s trial, and the shooting death of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman’s trial have strong feelings/opinions about the verdicts in those cases.
My friend asserted that Florida law was the cause of acquittal. Certainly, Zimmerman’s claim of self defense was the crux of the case his lawyers presented and of jury instructions. Lost, not considered or even absent, though, was Trayvon Martin’s need, attempt or right to defend himself.
The question that should be asked, my friend said, is what would have happened under that law if a black man were the aggressor and a white man were being followed.
That prompted me to contemplate the few known facts in the Zimmerman case, which are that a white man followed a black teenager, even though police told him not to, a confrontation occurred, the white man who had a loaded gun shot the black teen dead.
Both had the right to be where they were. The teen had the right to be doing what he was doing, i.e. walking on the street. The man had the right to be doing what he was doing, i.e. following the teen, even though police told him not to.
Both, under Florida law, had a right to defend themselves.
The jury heard Zimmerman’s testimony, albeit via his statements to police investigators, but without the benefit of cross examination (i.e. a single-source story). The jury heard no testimony from Trayvon Martin.
Once defense lawyers were permitted to portray Martin as a wanna-be gangster and use photos of what they promoted as his gang symbols and of his well-defined musculature, which were as unrelated to the trial as was Zimmerman’s record of his past brushes with law, which apparently was not admissible, they successfully fertilized the seeds of fear that are planted in the vast majority of Southern white females — and I was one — in early childhood.
Thus, instead of responding like prosecutors apparently thought they would, i.e. mothers sympathetic to what the prosecution planned to present as an unarmed teenager — who very well could have been one of their children — walking home from buying candy and a drink being stalked and shot by a wanna-be cop, those five white and one Hispanic female jurors saw him as the young thug the defense turned him into. The kind of young thug they had been conditioned to fear and who, no doubt, break into the houses of people like them.
Once the defense morphed Martin into the bad guy, he lost all credibility and any right to defend himself.
So, what would have happened under the Florida law if a black man were the aggressor and a white man were being followed? One finding cited in a Tampa Bay Times story is, “Defendants claiming ‘stand your ground’ are more likely to prevail if the victim is black. Seventy-three percent of those who killed a black person faced no penalty compared to 59 percent of those who killed a white.”
I was struck earlier today by another similarity. This one between Zimmerman and, not Simpson, but the lynching more than eight decades ago of three black teenagers who were arrested on suspicion of murder. A Sanford, Florida, resident said in an interview aired this morning on NPR, “We need to move on.” That was the theme of a newspaper editorial in the wake of those lynchings more than 80 years ago.