No heroes, villains in shooting case
The George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin shooting case in Sanford, Fla., was not the racial morality play that some people portrayed it to be.
The verdict is in, George Zimmerman was found not guilty of murder and the reaction has been overwhelming — both in terms of criticism and support.
Most people, it appears, are following President Obama's advice to accept the result.
"We are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken," he said.
What's most important now is to understand exactly what the jury said — it's pretty straightforward even in the face of the emotion surrounding the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
The jury found Zimmerman not guilty of murder. It didn't condemn Martin, it didn't praise Zimmerman. It merely found, on the basis of all the facts, that Zimmerman's assertion that he was acting in self-defense raised a reasonable doubt about the prosecution's claim that Zimmerman was guilty of a crime.
What's disturbing is the interpretations that so many people, some of them holding important public positions, are putting on the jury's decision.
The rule of law is about rights, wrongs and remedies, and there are many wrongs for which there are no remedies.
The shooting of Trayvon Martin was the result of a series of incorrect judgments and decisions by both Zimmerman and Martin for which no criminal culpability can be assigned. It never should have happened.
But this story is much less about the media narrative of an innocent black youth being preyed upon by a racist white man than it is about suspicion, miscalculation, temper and tragedy.
For starters, Zimmerman is Hispanic. But even that basic reality didn't fit the national media narrative that spun this case into a dispute about race.
As most people who've followed the story know by now, Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, spotted an unidentified youth in his neighborhood and was suspicious about his presence. Was that suspicion justified? In this case, it was not. Martin was visiting a nearby residence, which he had briefly left to patronize an area convenience store.
Zimmerman called police to report the activity and was advised by a radio dispatcher not to follow Martin. Unfortunately, Zimmerman ignored the admonition and followed him.
Was that a mistake in judgment? Absolutely. Was Zimmerman committing a crime by following Martin? Absolutely not.
Martin, according to the evidence, was disturbed by being followed, perhaps frightened or perhaps insulted. Either would have been normal under the circumstances.
At some point, Martin confronted Zimmerman, a struggle ensued and Zimmerman fatally shot Martin. Zimmerman claimed, and the evidence showed, that Martin had him down on the ground and was beating him when Zimmerman fired the fatal shot. Photographs taken of Zimmerman after the shooting revealed injuries both to his face and the back of his head.
Could this have been avoided if Zimmerman had not followed Martin? Of course.
Could this have been avoided in Martin had simply returned to the residence where he was visiting and ignored the man following him? Of course.
Could this have been avoided if Zimmerman had asked Martin why he was there and Martin explained his presence? Of course.
Could this have been avoided if Martin had told Zimmerman to mind his own business and walked away? Of course.
But that's not what happened. A series of bad judgments on the part of both Zimmerman and Martin resulted in the fight and the shooting.
It now appears that local police and prosecutors initially handled the case properly, correctly concluding the facts did not justify charging Zimmerman with a criminal offense. But the news media and those who exploited the racial aspect of the case turned it into a national story, prompting Florida's governor to appoint special prosecutors who bowed to public pressure and charged Zimmerman with murder.
How many people remember that Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz said months ago that the facts alleged by the prosecution were too vague and weak to support a murder charge? He was right, and those weak facts were on display for all to see in the nationally televised trial.
This event was many things, but it most certainly was neither murder nor any of the other criminal offenses on which the state sought a conviction. Who says? The jurors who heard all the evidence.
It's perfectly understandable that people, many of whom have only a slight understanding of how the criminal justice system works, would be disturbed by what happened. It represents a worst case scenario in human relations.
There are, however, lessons to be learned here. It's best to leave policing to the professionals. Talking is better than taking a swing. Once a fight starts, there's no telling where it will end. Verdicts dispose of criminal cases, but rarely provide a wholly satisfactory answer to a tough set of circumstances.