Trayvon Martin and the Irony of American Justice

This is not our system malfunctioning. It is our system working as intended. 
More
justice.jpg
A photograph that appeared in a chain e-mail about Trayvon Martin. In fact, the man in the photo is a 32-year-old rapper considerably larger than the slain 16-year-old.

In trying to assess the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, two seemingly conflicting truths emerge for me. The first is that based on the case presented by the state, and based on Florida law, George Zimmerman should not have been convicted of second degree murder or manslaughter. The second is that the killing of Trayvon Martin is a profound injustice. In examining the first conclusion, I think it's important to take a very hard look at the qualifications allowed for aggressors by Florida's self-defense statute:

Use of force by aggressor—The justification described in the preceding sections of this chapter is not available to a person who:

(1) Is attempting to commit, committing, or escaping after the commission of, a forcible felony; or

(2) Initially provokes the use of force against himself or herself, unless: (a) Such force is so great that the person reasonably believes that he or she is in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm and that he or she has exhausted every reasonable means to escape such danger other than the use of force which is likely to cause death or great bodily harm to the assailant; or (b) In good faith, the person withdraws from physical contact with the assailant and indicates clearly to the assailant that he or she desires to withdraw and terminate the use of force, but the assailant continues or resumes the use of force.

I don't think the import of this is being appreciated. Effectively, I can bait you into a fight and if I start losing I can legally kill you, provided I "believe" myself to be subject to "great bodily harm." It is then the state's job to prove—beyond a reasonable doubt—that I either did not actually fear for my life, or that my fear was unreasonable. In the case of George Zimmerman, even if the state proved that he baited an encounter (and I am not sure they did) they still must prove that he had no reasonable justification to fear for his life. You see very similar language in the actual instructions given to the jury:

In deciding whether George Zimmerman was justified in the use of deadly force, you must judge him by the circumstances by which he was surrounded at the time the force was used. The danger facing George Zimmerman need not have been actual; however, to justify the use of deadly force, the appearance of danger must have been so real that a reasonably cautious and prudent person under the same circumstances would have believed that the danger could be avoided only through the use of that force. Based upon appearances, George Zimmerman must have actually believed that the danger was real.

If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.

There has been much complaint that "stand your ground" has nothing to do with this case. That contention is contravened by the fact that it is cited in the instructions to the jury. Taken together, it is important to understand that it is not enough for the state to prove that George Zimmerman acted unwisely in following Martin. Under Florida law, George Zimmerman had no responsibility to—at any point—retreat. The state must prove that Zimmerman had no reasonable fear for his life. Moreover, it is not enough for the jury to find Zimmerman's story fishy. Again, the jury instructions:

George Zimmerman has entered a plea of not guilty. This means you must presume or believe George Zimmerman is innocent. The presumption stays with George Zimmerman as to each material allegation in the Information through each stage of the trial unless it has been overcome by the evidence to the exclusion of and beyond a reasonable doubt. To overcome George Zimmerman's presumption of innocence, the State has the burden of proving the crime with which George Zimmerman is charged was committed and George Zimmerman is the person who committed the crime.

George Zimmerman is not required to present evidence or prove anything.

Whenever the words "reasonable doubt" are used you must consider the following: A reasonable doubt is not a mere possible doubt, a speculative, imaginary or forced doubt. Such a doubt must not influence you to return a verdict of not guilty if you have an abiding conviction of guilt. On the other hand if, after carefully considering, comparing and weighing all the evidence, there is not an abiding conviction of guilt, or, if having a conviction, it is one which is not stable but one which wavers and vacillates, then the charge is not proved beyond every reasonable doubt and you must find George Zimmerman not guilty because the doubt is reasonable.

It is to the evidence introduced in this trial, and to it alone, that you are to look for that proof.

A reasonable doubt as to the guilt of George Zimmerman may arise from the evidence, conflict in the evidence, or the lack of evidence.

If you have a reasonable doubt, you should find George Zimmerman not guilty. If you have no reasonable doubt, you should find George Zimmerman guilty.

This was the job given to the state of Florida. I have seen nothing within the actual case presented by the prosecution that would allow for a stable and unvacillating belief that George Zimmerman was guilty.

That conclusion should not offer you security or comfort. It should not leave you secure in the wisdom of our laws. On the contrary, it should greatly trouble you. But if you are simply focusing on what happened in the courtroom, then you have been head-faked by history and you have bought into an idea of fairness which can not possibly exist.

The injustice inherent in the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman was not authored by a jury given a weak case. The jury's performance may be the least disturbing aspect of this entire affair. The injustice was authored by a country which has taken as its policy, for the lionshare of its history, to erect a pariah class. The killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman is not an error in programming. It is the correct result of forces we set in motion years ago and have done very little to arrest.

One need only look the criminalization of Martin across the country. Perhaps you have been lucky enough to not receive the above "portrait" of Trayvon Martin and its accompanying text. The portrait is actually of a 32-year old man. Perhaps you were lucky enough to not see the Trayvon Martin imagery used for target practice (by law enforcement, no less.) Perhaps you did not see the iPhone games. Or maybe you missed the theory presently being floated by Zimmerman's family that Martin was a gun-runner and drug-dealer in training, that texts and tweets he sent mark him as a criminal in waiting. Or the theory floated that the mere donning of a hoodie marks you a thug, leaving one wondering why this guy is a criminal and this one is not.

We have spent much of this year outlining the ways in which American policy has placed black people outside of the law. We are now being told that after having pursued such policies for 200 years, after codifying violence in slavery, after a people conceived in mass rape, after permitting the disenfranchisement of black people through violence, after Draft riots, after white-lines, white leagues, and red shirts, after terrorism, after standing aside for the better reduction of Rosewood and the improvement of Tulsa, after the coup d'etat in Wilmington, after Airport Homes and Cicero, after Ossian Sweet, after Arthur Lee McDuffie, after Anthony Baez, Amadou Diallo and Eleanor Bumpers, after Kathryn Johnston and the Danziger Bridge, that there are no ill effects, that we are pure, that we are just, that we are clean. Our sense of self is incredible. We believe ourselves to have inherited all of Jefferson's love of freedom, but none of his affection for white supremacy.

You should not be troubled that George Zimmerman "got away" with the killing of Trayvon Martin, you should be troubled that you live in a country that ensures that Trayvon Martin will happen. Trayvon Martin is happening again in Florida. Right now:

In November, black youth Jordan Davis, a 17-year-old Jacksonville resident, was the only person murdered after Michael Dunn, 46, allegedly shot into the SUV Davis was inside several times after an argument about the volume of music playing.

According to Dunn's girlfriend, Rhonda Rouer, Dunn had three rum and cokes at a wedding reception. She felt secure enough for him to drive and thought that he was in a good mood. On the drive back to the hotel they were residing at, they made a pit stop at the convenience store where the murder occurred. At the Gate Station, Rouer said Dunn told her that he hated "thug music." Rouer then went inside the store to make purchases and heard several gunshots while she was still within the building.

Upon returning and seeing Dunn put his gun back into the glove compartment, Rouer asked why he had shot at the car playing music and Dunn claimed that he feared for his life and that "they threatened to kill me." The couple drove back to their hotel, and claim they did not realize anyone had died until the story appeared on the news the next day.

After killing Jordan Davis, Michael Dunn ordered a pizza.

When you have a society that takes at its founding the hatred and degradation of a people, when that society inscribes that degradation in its most hallowed document, and continues to inscribe hatred in its laws and policies, it is fantastic to believe that its citizens will derive no ill messaging.

It is painful to say this: Trayvon Martin is not a miscarriage of American justice, but American justice itself. This is not our system malfunctioning. It is our system working as intended. To expect our juries, our schools, our police, to single-handedly correct for this, is to look at the final play in the final minute of the final quarter and wonder why we couldn't come back from twenty-four down.

To paraphrase a great man: We are what our record says we are. How can we sensibly expect different?

Jump to comments
Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle. More

Born in 1975, the product of two beautiful parents. Raised in West Baltimore -- not quite The Wire, but sometimes ill all the same. Studied at the Mecca for some years in the mid-'90s. Emerged with a purpose, if not a degree. Slowly migrated up the East Coast with a baby and my beloved, until I reached the shores of Harlem. Wrote some stuff along the way.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Sad Desk Lunch: Is This How You Want to Die?

How to avoid working through lunch, and diseases related to social isolation.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

From This Author

Just In