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Zimmerman trial all about race

Updated: July 23, 2013 3:48PM



Anyone who thinks the stalking of Trayvon Martin and the trial of his killer, George Zimmerman, was not about race is kidding himself.

We would wish it otherwise. Race is the most important undiscussed issue in America today.

On Monday, Attorney General Eric Holder called the shooting “unnecessary,” but did not delve any deeper into the political morass of race, fear, hatred and violence in America.

We talk about race only after a tragedy or crisis — Martin’s shooting and Zimmerman’s acquittal — or after those rare moments when we pat ourselves on the back and tell ourselves we don’t need to talk about race because the election of Barack Obama made the United States a “post-racial” society.

But while Obama’s election was significant, historic and even epic, it did not signal an end to racism in America. It didn’t even come close.

Martin, 17, was black and unarmed when he was shot to death on Feb. 26, 2012, in Sanford, Fla., by Zimmerman, 28, whom the news media took to calling a “white Hispanic.” (His mother was born in Peru.)

There were many disputes during the trial about what actually happened that rainy night, but both sides agree that Zimmerman was suspicious of Martin, whom he recognized as black, walking around in his neighborhood. Zimmerman left the safety of his truck to search for Martin on foot. Zimmerman was carrying a Kel-Tec 9 millimeter semiautomatic handgun, for which he had a concealed carry permit.

There was a confrontation, and Zimmerman shot and killed Martin. Zimmerman was questioned by police and let go.

But many, especially in the black community, were outraged. President Obama said a few weeks later in the Rose Garden, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon. I think (Trayvon’s parents) are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves, and we are going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened.”

Finally, 46 days after the shooting and the intervention by Florida’s governor, who appointed a special prosecutor, Zimmerman was arrested and charged with second-degree murder, the highest charge prosecutors could bring.

Which was the problem. It was a classic case of overcharging. Prosecutors routinely overcharge to persuade defendants to plead guilty to lesser charges, get lighter sentences, and save the court time and expense.

But to prove murder in the second degree in Florida, the prosecutors would have to prove that Zimmerman had acted with “a depraved mind without regard for human life” when he shot Martin, and they would have to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.

Did the racial atmosphere in Florida and elsewhere force the prosecutors to bring a charge they knew they would have a tough time proving?

They say no. In his opening statement to the jury, prosecutor John Guy said: “We are confident that at the end of this trial you will know in your head, in your heart, in your stomach that George Zimmerman did not shoot Trayvon Martin because he had to. He shot him for the worst of all reasons, because he wanted to.”

But Zimmerman’s legal team presented a different scenario: An innocent man is attacked by an aggressive teenager, knocked to the ground, his nose broken and his head beaten against the concrete several times. Zimmerman was in fear for his life and responded with justifiable deadly force.

The judge made sure race was downplayed during the trial. She ruled that the prosecution could accuse Zimmerman of “profiling” Martin, but not “racially” profiling him.

In the end, the jurors did not find Zimmerman innocent, only that the prosecution had failed to prove Zimmerman guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The jurors also did not find Zimmerman guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter, which they might have done had prosecutors concentrated on that charge in the first place.

Martin was breaking no law by being a black teenager walking through a neighborhood wearing a hoodie. He had as much right to be in that neighborhood as Zimmerman did.

But Zimmerman, under Florida’s demented gun laws, had a right to be carrying a concealed handgun that was ready to be fired. As his attorney, Mark O’Mara, said on CNN Monday, “If you have a gun and don’t have a round in the chamber, it’s a paperweight.”

Oh, how I wish George Zimmerman had been carrying a paperweight that night. Trayvon Martin might be alive today and his family spared the agony they are now going through.

And it would be good to be able to talk about race in America without agony. But that day has not yet arrived.



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