George Zimmerman: Portrait of an Artist as a Killer

By Andrew Cohen
Alex Brandon/Associated Press

Is there a story that better illustrates the arbitrary and capricious nature of our criminal justice systems today than the story of George Zimmerman's just-ended online art auction?  Some men kill and go to prison-- sentenced to life or death. Some men go to prison even if they haven't killed-- for life and sometimes for death. And then some men kill, don't go to prison, and then somehow become celebrities who sell their paintings for over $100,000.

Indeed, the randomness in this case is most telling because it exists on the macro and not on the micro scale. Zimmerman was acquitted in July of murdering young Trayvon Martin not because of some error in the application of the law but by virtue of the jury's faithful application of it. Zimmerman simply benefited from Florida's dubious judgment that some of its residents ought to be allowed more freedom to kill some of its other residents.

The arbitrariness of the Zimmerman story doesn't end there. For the state that ensured that his killing of the unarmed Martin would be "justified" and thus not punishable under law is the same state that is contorting itself these days in an effort to kill a man named Freddy Lee Hall, an intellectually disabled inmate who ought to be protected from execution by the United States Supreme Court's ruling in Atkins v. Virginia.

George Zimmerman's painting (ebay.com)

We want to spare from punishment men, like Zimmerman, who knowingly kill, Florida said in 2013, but we will not spare from lethal injection men, like Hall, whose mental disabilities preclude them from understanding the nature of capital punishment. And yet it is Zimmerman who is hailed in many places as a hero and it is Hall whose story is buried. This is the context in which this weekend's travesty upon justice occurred. As reported by the Orlando Sentinel:

George Zimmerman earned a new title Saturday — professional artist — when eBay bidding ended in six figures on his oil painting.

The winning bid: $100,099.99. It wasn't immediately known who bought Zimmerman's original oil painting showing part of an American flag washed in blue with the words "God," "one nation" and "with liberty and justice for all" printed in the flag stripes.

The painting had received 96 bids from 24 bidders since the auction started Monday, said eBay, which doesn't disclose bidders' names online. Bidding ended at 12:55 p.m. Saturday.

"Whoever wins within the Continental United States, will receive this painting delivered by me personally. Your friend," Zimmerman said on eBay.

Some killers go to prison. Other killers get paid six figures to be "your friend." How does America make this impossible distinction? Well, it depends first upon who you are and who you kill. If you are white and kill someone who is black you are more likely to have the chance to deliver in person the art you have sold online than if you are black and kill someone who is white. Racial disparity in murder cases extends broadly from the prosecutor's charging discretion, to the selection of juries, to cross-racial eyewitness identification and to the sentences imposed by judges.

It also depends upon where you kill. If you kill in the unhinged state of Florida, for example, you are far less likely to be held accountable for the killing than if you kill in other states that don't have such broad statutory justifications for killing. This is especially true of the death penalty. According to a report this year by the Death Penalty Information Center, two percent of the counties in America are responsible for over 50 percent of the nation's capital cases.

This helps explain why George Zimmerman is free today to sell his art to the highest bidder.  Whatever his intent that night, whatever his motive, Zimmerman had the good fortune to kill the "right" kind of person in the "right" kind of state in the "right" kind of circumstances to be spared the murder convictions and death sentences that so many other killers, in and out of Florida, have received since February 26, 2012, the night Zimmerman shot Martin.

But it does not explain is why so many people would want to buy that art, or why so many have rallied around Zimmerman as some symbol for the justifications of self-defense. Why-- even after his more recent run-ins with the law-- he has maintained a blend of notoriety and hero-worship that might cause an otherwise rational person to to shell out six figures. I wonder, was the person who bought the Zimmerman painting the same person who reportedly paid $250,000 early this year for a rare copy of O.J. Simpson's "If I Did It?"

Most killers are unlucky. Our prisons in fact are filled with killers who were unlucky. Indeed, most of our laws are designed to ensure that our killers end up being unlucky. But George Zimmerman sure wasn't, was he? And now he is being rewarded for his luck, and for his infamy, for what should have been the least defensible moment of his contentious life. For this killer, and we can call him that even though his killing was considered "justified," America truly is the land of the free and the home of the brave-- and a profitable one at that.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/12/george-zimmerman-portrait-of-an-artist-as-a-killer/282588/