In a very real and forlorn sense, Hispanic American George Zimmerman’s acquittal by a jury of six white females in the Sanford, Florida courthouse two Saturdays ago of second degree murder for the killing of 17-year-old black American Trayvon Martin in February 2012 was guaranteed long before his trial.
This is because the controversial “Stand Your Ground” law of Florida, in the circumstance of Martin’s death, literally acquitted, without trial, the obsessively vigilant and perpetually inflamed neighborhood activist, and allowed him to walk the streets of Sanford for some six weeks as a free man without a single charge laid against him after he had pumped a single bullet at close range into Trayvon’s heart and left him for dead on the ground, in an apparent act of self-defense by claiming the deceased broke his nose and inflicted upon him multiple cuts and bruises.
Thanks to nationwide protests and outrage at this particular law in America, however, encompassing law-abiding American citizens, civil rights organizations, network news channels, and President Obama himself, Zimmerman was eventually arrested, charged and tried.
But since his acquittal, social media has erupted in fury and there has been an explosion of street demonstrations all across the United States by predominantly black and progressive groups demanding “justice” for Trayvon, which is sadly reminiscent of the aftermath of the Rodney King incident. More pointedly, they mask the very deep sense of outrage at Trayvon’s killing on the part of a broad cross-section of American citizens, and the equally deep disappointment that his killer was not convicted, even on the lesser charge of manslaughter.
One of the problems, as I see it, with this case of murder, as in all such cases, is that from the moment of his arrest the burden of proof was not with Zimmerman; and his defense team successfully reinforced the principle that he was innocent until proven guilty against the background of the offensive “Stand Your Ground” law.
Hence, in the final analysis, whatever were the views on Twitter and other social media platforms, nationally and globally, or the strength of powerful voices of the Left and Right commentariat in America that were busy on network television stations during the trial espousing one set of legal and political views over another, the evidence to convict Zimmerman was found not to be there- notwithstanding the revelation by juror B37 that at least three of the jurors were in favor of convicting him of either murder or manslaughter.
This is not to deny that the ugly and enduring issue of race and racial profiling played an integral part in the killing of Trayvon Martin. For it is extremely doubtful whether Zimmerman’s suspicion would have been aroused to the same degree of intensity had the person he observed peering through windows in his gated community been a white man or woman, rather than a hooded black teenager culturally and politically epitomizing social deviance in America.
To this extent, it would not be unreasonable for some to conclude that the jury perhaps acquitted Zimmerman because they all felt it is acceptable — given the long history of institutional and personal racism in America — for a white man in 21st century America to shoot a young, black, unarmed teenager.
But the outcome of the case did not hinge solely on racial tension. The inconvenient truth is that the state did not prove its case of second degree murder or manslaughter against Zimmerman beyond a reasonable doubt. And the jury was therefore obliged to return a verdict, one way or another, purely on the basis of that fact, rather than on the causes that led to a trial in the first place. In a strictly legal sense, the texture of public disapproval of the killing of Trayvon based on prejudices or predilections played no part in this.
Sadly, no living human being but Zimmerman knows for sure what happened on that fateful night in February last year, and the verdict – irrespective of the competing social arguments about injustice, our politics, backgrounds, hopes and expectations – reflects this. The evidence, in other words, did not exist in sufficient abundance to convict a man of murder or manslaughter, beyond a reasonable doubt.
What is clearly not in doubt, however, is that young Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman with a gun, which the law gives him the freedom to use. This aspect of the case prompted a passionate President Obama to ask Americans whether they were doing all they could “to stem the tide of gun violence.”
A lawyer by profession, Obama, quite sensibly, was reluctant to join the “justice for Trayvon” caravan on the basis of disagreement with the Zimmerman verdict, and chose instead to focus on the thousands of black youths in the United States killed yearly by the gun. A recent PEW Research Center study supports his concern. It found that in 2010 black people constituted 55 percent of the victims of firearms homicide in America, although they represent only 13 percent of the population.
But with few exceptions, no one seems to be paying sufficient attention to this escalating crisis of gun violence in the United States. The former Democratic congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords, who was severely injured after being shot in the head at a political rally in 2011, recently delivered a powerful message about the importance of America to act on gun control. She said, “Too many children are dying: too many children. We must do something. It will be hard. But the time is now. You must act.”
Since her harrowing ordeal, however, the stalemate in the national politics of gun control has not improved appreciably. Only a handful of states – Connecticut, Colorado, New York and Maryland – have enacted strict new gun regulations; and the Congress to which she once belonged has done absolutely nothing in face of the evidence pointing to the fact that the violence of the type that nearly took her life is caused by the use of ordinary handguns in America.
In terms of the daily violence in the United States, twice as many people are killed by guns than die of terrorist attacks worldwide. Research suggests that Americans face a one in 3.5 million chance of being killed in a terrorist attack, but a one in 22,000 chance of being murdered.
And when Zimmerman pumped the bullet into Trayvon’s heart, he was not only confirming that guns have become increasingly lethal, but also that most gun violence in his country is caused by ordinary handguns.
Between 2000 and 2008, 30,000 gun deaths a year were reported in the USA for an average of more than 80 every single day. President Obama also pointed out at a prayer vigil in Newton, Connecticut on December 16, 2012, that more than 900 Americans have been killed by gun violence since the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting of December 14 of the same year.
What is more, since 1960, in excess of 1.3 million Americans have died from firearms, either in accidents, homicides or suicides. The “land of the free and the home of the brave” leads the world in gun violence with a rate twenty times higher than the combined rate of the 22 high-income developed nations below it.
Against this background, the man who shot Trayvon Martin to death walks free, while the probability remains high that, faced with the same set of circumstances he could kill again, in the view of the right to bear arms in America and the “Stand Your Ground” law in Sanford, Florida.
Trayvon Martin is gone from this planet forever, and his parents, friends and community are left to mourn his passing. Faced with such a sad oasis of emotions, justice for this young black teenager may well reside in genuinely reforming America’s gun laws. In this regard, President Obama has much more work to do; and his success in this endeavor would mean that Trayvon would not have died in vain.