By Alan Bean
“We prosecute cases based on the relevant facts of each case and on the law of the state of Florida.” So says State Attorney Angela B. Corey, the special prosecutor assigned to the George Zimmerman case. It is unlikely that Zimmerman would ever have been charged had it not been for the national outcry that has rivetted attention on this case.
Law enforcement and district attorneys dislike the Stand Your Ground law because it frustrates their efforts to arrest, investigate and prosecute cases in which the shooter claims self-defense. But law enforcement was obviously intimidated by Stand Your Ground. Even though Zimmerman jumped to unwarranted conclusions about Trayvon Martin, even though he defied a police dispatcher’s demand that he remain in his vehicle, even though Zimmerman clearly followed and confronted Martin, the appeal to self-defense worked like magic.
Like any high-profile narrative, the Trayvon Martin case has revealed a troubling divide in public perception. On one side of the fault line, people identify with George Zimmerman’s suspicion of young black males wearing hoodies. On the other side, folks identify with a victim of racial profiling and vigilante justice.
Those who identify with neither Zimmerman nor Martin generally take a “let the system handle it approach.” Now that Zimmerman has been arrested it may appear that the dispassionate bystanders who trust established judicial processes called it right. The Washington Post editorial below suggests, albeit cautiously, that the system is working as it should. Zimmerman will have his day in court. Prosecutors will have a hard time working around the prejudicial impact of the Stand Your Ground law. A plea bargain may settle this thing. Zimmerman’s mental issues may also surface as a major issue (the man is clearly unstable).
But none of this would be happening apart from massive national protest.
In a related development, a growing list of corporations is cutting their ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in response to revelations that the conservative organization was knee-deep in drafting the legislation that created Stand Your Ground laws in Florida and several other states. According to the Center for Media and Democracy:
This announcement comes in light of a recent controversy surrounding ALEC’s link to Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which may protect the killer of 17-year old Trayvon Martin, and ALEC’s association with voter ID laws and other extreme legislative proposals. McDonalds, Kraft Foods, Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Intuit have all announced within the past week that they have decided to not renew their membership with ALEC and the Gates Foundation has announced it will not continue to fund ALEC.
ALEC uses contributions from corporations to draft conservative, business-friendly legislation. What the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was doing in bed with such a rabidly partisan organization is difficult to discern. According to the ALEC website, the Gates Foundation contributed $376, 635 to ALEC “to educate and engage its membership on more efficient state budget approaches to drive greater student outcomes, as well as educate them on beneficial ways to recruit, retain, evaluate and compensate effective teaching based upon merit and achievement.”
In other words, Gates was backing the fight to undermine public education. Although the Gates’ contribution to ALEC is completely unrelated to Stand Your Ground, the Foundation apparently reconsidered its association with an organization that has both feet planted on the conservative side of the culture war. That’s not how Bill and Melinda want us to think of them.
All of this demonstrates the messy power of narrative. Narratives like the Trayvon Martin story are difficult to control once released into the world. They are effective, however, because as Walter Fisher has observed, narrative, not logic, drives our thinking and doing.
By Editorial Board, The Washington Post
So declared State Attorney Angela B. Corey in announcing second-degree murder charges against George Zimmerman, the Sanford, Fla., neighborhood watch volunteer who shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in February. Ms. Corey hit all the right notes, explaining that her job was not to secure convictions but to be a “minister of justice.” She appropriately emphasized that Mr. Zimmerman’s rights must also be protected and cautioned against drawing any conclusions before the evidence has been heard and tested.
Ms. Corey typically works out of Jacksonville but was tapped as a special prosecutor on the matter after Sanford law enforcement officials initially decided not to arrest Mr. Zimmerman. Her appointment occurred only after Mr. Martin’s parents publicly decried the handling of their son’s death, seemingly incriminating 911 tapes involving Mr. Zimmerman were released, and the Justice Department announced plans to conduct its own investigation. Whether the state would have pressed forward but for these developments may never be known.
Mr. Zimmerman, who made a brief court appearance Thursday to acknowledge the charges against him, will be arraigned next month, at which time he will have the opportunity to enter a plea. Before a trial convenes, he may also have a chance to seek dismissal of the case under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which shields individuals from prosecution if they show that they employed lethal force to combat what they reasonably perceived to be a serious threat to their life or safety. The law, a version of which has been adopted by some 20 states, all but invites individuals to shoot first and ask questions later, and should be repealed. Ms. Corey rightly has promised to fight such a defense if invoked by Mr. Zimmerman.
On Thursday, Ms. Corey’s office filed a sworn affidavit buttressing many of the assertions that first triggered public outrage. Mr. Martin was “profiled” by Mr. Zimmerman, the affidavit states. An interview with Mr. Martin’s girlfriend, with whom he was speaking on the phone just before being shot, revealed that Mr. Martin was “scared because he was being followed by an unknown male through the complex and didn’t know why” and that the teenager “attempted to run home but was followed.” Investigators assert in the sworn document that Mr. Zimmerman “got out of his vehicle and followed Martin” and that Mr. “Zimmerman confronted Martin and a struggle ensued.” They say that Trayvon Martin’s mother has identified the cries for help heard on 911 calls as those of her son.
All this remains to be tested in court, as it should be. Because of Florida law, chances are good that the case will be televised if it goes to trial, providing viewers with an opportunity to judge the evidence and the proceedings for themselves. Such broadcasts do not assure legitimacy, nor can they guarantee that the public accepts the results. But given the troubling origins of this case and the more recent concerns about whether Mr. Zimmerman can get a fair trial, this added level of scrutiny would be welcome.