By Alan Bean
By the time you read this the jury in the George Zimmerman trial will likely have rendered a verdict; but as I write, deliberations are just underway.
And I’m worried.
I have seen too many all-white juries in the course of fifteen years of advocacy work and they invariably get it wrong.
Poor, young, black defendants are perceived as a threat by most white jurors and this perception often overrides all other considerations.
I have no desire to see George Zimmerman spend the rest of his life behind bars; nor would I be particularly upset if the jury convicts the defendant of the lesser charge of manslaughter.
Zimmerman didn’t write the law that allowed him to carry a concealed weapon with him at all times.
He didn’t introduce the stand-your-ground law that was likely contributed to his decision to leave his vehicle in pursuit of a young black stranger in a hoody.
Nor is Zimmerman responsible for the crude racial stereotypes that shape public perception. The defendant in this case came of age in a society marred by bad law, a toxic racial history and widespread ignorance.
But George Zimmerman drove the events that ended in the death of an innocent young man, and he should be held accountable. Much has been said about whether the defendant’s actions fall within the purview of Florida’s stand-your-ground law.
What if Zimmerman is telling the truth about his encounter with Trayvon Martin?
What if the pursuer became the pursued.
What if the aggressor was suddenly placed on the defensive, forced to counter a life-threatening attack with lethal force?
What if he genuinely feared for his life?
We will never know if Zimmerman had cause to fear for his life; but there is no doubt that he posed a mortal threat to young Trayvon Martin.
Imagine the scenario. You’re walking home from the store with kittles in your pocket and a can of iced tea in your hand when you notice you’re being followed by a strange man in a car. The car stops and the strange man starts running in your direction.
What do you do?
Trayvon Martin was faced with a flight or flee scenario, and the evidence suggests that when flight proved insufficient he confronted his pursuer.
And who can blame him? Trayvon was standing his ground.
But most white folks can’t see that, and that’s why this white-dominated jury worries me. If jurors are convinced that Martin used his fists to defend himself, all bets are off. Can white women identify with the fear of a young black male pursued by an older white man; or do they only have access to George Zimmerman’s emotional world?
The Trayvon Martin tragedy dramatizes the enormous gulf dividing black and minority perception in America. The Tulia drug sting and the Jena 6 case reveal the same phenomenon.
In Tulia, white residents were so fixated on their fear of drugs–and mixed-race grandchildren–that they were unable to inhabit the horror of a pre-dawn raid that separates a traumatized mother from her screaming child. Jurors wanted a drug-free, crime-free community so badly that the word of a notorious liar was received a God-breathed gospel.
In Jena, the fact that a group of black students attacked a white student rendered the back story irrelevant. Few white observers cared that local officials, by failing to confront an unambiguous display of racial hatred, ramped up the level of racial animosity in the student body. If the story ended with a group of black students attacking a defenseless white student nothing else was important.
So with the Zimmerman case. If white juror believe that a black youngster stood his ground will they see legitimate self defense or will their primal fear of the black young male overpower all other considerations?
Frankly, I would be surprised by either a guilty verdict or an acquittal.
My hunch is that the jury will find Zimmerman guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter.
But white juries have surprised me so often that I have no confidence in my own hunch.