Friday, March 16, 2012

Sorry, Trayvon Martin: They Just Don't Like You (UPDATED)

"It is about time the court faced the fact that the white people of the South don't like the colored people." -- Chief Justice William Rehnquist (written when he was a law clerk on the Supreme Court).

The recent murder of Trayvon Martin, a black teenager, by George Zimmerman, a white "neighborhood watch vigilante from Sanford, Florida, should remind the public of the continuation of racial injustice in the United States. Zimmerman shot and killed Martin as he walked to his father's home in a central Florida neighborhood.

Prior to shooting Martin, Zimmerman called police from his car to report a "suspicious" person in the neighborhood. Zimmerman asked police whether he should leave his car to investigate the situation, but police told him not to do so. Despite the police warning, Zimmerman left his car and confronted Martin.

Although the facts remain hazy, Zimmerman admits that after he left his car, he killed Martin. Zimmerman says that he acted in self-defense. Several witnesses tell local newspapers, however, that Zimmerman did not act in self-defense; they have also accused police of mishandling the investigation. It is also clear that Martin was unarmed and that he was returning to his father's home from a store where he had purchased candy for a younger sibling.

Police have declined to arrest Zimmerman. Bill Lee, Chief of the Sanford Police Department, accepts Zimmerman's allegation that he acted in self-defense. Lee says that Zimmerman believed that Martin was a threat because "the way that he was walking or appeared seemed suspicious to him." Lee also says (mistakenly - see below) that Zimmerman has a "squeaky clean" record and that he does not believe that "it was [Zimmerman's] intent to go and shoot somebody. . . .” Currently, prosecutors are considering whether to bring criminal charges against Zimmerman.

This case is deeply troubling for several reasons. First, the police are misapplying and misleading the public about the criminal laws regarding homicide and self-defense in order to justify the decision not to arrest Zimmerman. Also, this case is yet another reminder of the continuing problem of racial injustice in the United States, particularly, the disparate treatment of black and white offenders and victims.

Law Regarding Homicide and Self-Defense

The law regarding homicide is far more complicated than the public's general understanding of the term.  While the public tends to equate "homicide" and "murder," these words are quite different from a legal perspective.

Homicide is simply the killing of a person by another individual. Within that broad category, however, several scenarios are possible. The killing could result from intentional and planned behavior; this is typically described as "murder." The killing could result from recklessness or negligence; this is typically described as "manslaughter." Although I have simplified these categories somewhat, it is clear that even if Zimmerman did not begin the night with the intent to kill an individual, he still might have committed a serious crime -- possibly, manslaughter or even second-degree murder.

Every state recognizes "self-defense" as a defense to a homicide charge. Under Florida law (as in many other states), in order to act in self-defense, the assailant must reasonably fear that the victim will harm him or her or some other person. Furthermore, in order to rely upon self-defense, the assailant must not have acted act as the aggressor.

In order to act with lethal force, as Zimmerman did, the assailant must reasonably fear that the victim will cause imminent great bodily harm or death to him or her or to another person. Under Florida law, lethal force is also justifiable to stop home invasions and carjacking -- scenarios that are not relevant to Martin's death.

The Facts Support Charging Zimmerman

From the few facts that are known, Zimmerman's self-defense claim seems shaky at best. Zimmerman, who is 26, weighs about 100 pounds more than Martin, who was 17. Zimmerman was safe in his car and advised by police to remain inside. Zimmerman admitted to following Martin in his car. Zimmerman was armed with a gun.  Martin was unarmed. The facts of the case do not suggest that Zimmerman was justified in using deadly force against Martin. Instead, they suggest the opposite: Martin should have feared Zimmerman.

Martin should have feared Zimmerman because Zimmerman was following -- or stalking -- him in a vehicle.  Zimmerman left the car to confront Martin.  Zimmerman was much larger than Martin. Zimmerman was armed with a deadly weapon. Zimmerman was likely the aggressor because he left his car and confronted Martin.  Under these circumstances, if Martin fought Zimmerman, he likely had the right to do so according to Florida law regarding self-defense.  Zimmerman's behavior would cause a reasonable person to fear him.

Furthermore, the police statement that Zimmerman has a squeaky clean record is not exactly true. In 2005 Zimmerman was charged with resisting arrest with violence and battery upon a police officer. Also, residents in Zimmerman's neighborhood allegedly complained to police about his aggressive tactics in the past. Even though these additional factors could not prove guilt in a court of law (and might not even be admissible as evidence), they certainly are the type of information police routinely use before making arrests.

Racism Still Exists

The oldest "race card" is the denial that racism exists. Despite the popular belief that the United States is post-racial, racism remains a substantial factor in American culture.  Indeed, this case follows a disturbing racial pattern that was typical during Jim Crow and segregation. The police have discounted the value of the black victim. The police have accepted as factual the allegations of the white assailant -- however suspicious they sound. The police have failed to charge a white man who unlawfully killed an innocent black male.  And the police have stated that the black victim was the aggressor. These traditional patterns of racism that exist in the Martin case were pervasive during Jim Crow.

These racist patterns also exist far beyond the Martin case. Social scientists continue to conduct studies that reveal implicit racial bias in the United States. Even people who consider themselves racial egalitarians often act upon stereotypical beliefs about persons of color.

In one study, researchers showed a series of images of individuals to test subjects. The participants were told to "shoot" at images that also included a gun.  More often, test subjects incorrectly shot unarmed black subjects; they paused, however, before shooting white subjects, which limited the amount of incorrect outcomes. The researchers repeated this study with police officers and found frighteningly similar results: race impacted the subjects' conclusion that the image was armed. This same instinctive racial thinking could have impacted Zimmerman.

Others studies demonstrate that whites are more sympathetic crime victims than blacks and Latinos.  This pattern even impacts reports of crime in the media. Compare, for example, the extreme level of media attention to white female crime victims (in particular) with the reaction to black victims, including Martin. If Martin were killed in Aruba, like Natalee Holloway, he still would not receive the same volume of attention her death attracted from the media. Race and gender biases explain this differential treatment.  And, to reiterate, these biases even affect the behavior of individuals who sincerely describe themselves as nonracist, which is how Zimmerman's father recently portrayed his son.

What To Do Next

Currently, prosecutors are examining Martin's death. Because prosecutors are elected and impacted by social biases, however, it is unclear whether they will behave differently than the police.

In order to provide justice in this case, a new investigation should take place with different investigators. The Sanford police department lacks credibility. Also, Chief Lee needs to lose his job. He is shielding a likely violent felon, rather than helping the victim.  This is atrocious behavior.

Finally, the public needs to admit that race still remains a powerful force in the United States. Researchers who have documented the existence of implicit bias have also found that training and education can prevent racist behavior. Unless the public admits that racism remains a substantial social issue, then people will not recognize the need for training and education. The greatest outcome of young Trayvon's death could be progress towards a more just society.


Note: The quote from Rehnquist was contained in a memorandum he wrote urging the Court to rule against black plaintiffs in a race discrimination case. The plaintiffs filed a lawsuit challenging the "white primaries" that Southern Democrats used to nominate candidates. Rehnquist viewed this as a freedom of association issue. The Court ruled that the racist primaries violated the Constitution.

UPDATE: Apparently, the Sanford police department has issues. See BREAKING NEWS in Trayvon Martin Case: Officer in the Case Has A Prior Record of Racial Controversy.

Police have released the 911 tapes. The tape of Zimmerman's call contradicts police accounts of the Martin's killing.

See also:

Trayvon Martin: A Fatal Flaw in Zimmerman's Self-Defense Argument

George Zimmerman, Killer of Trayvon Martin: The Man Who Would Be Cop

Trayvon Martin: "Stand Your Ground" Rule Has NOTHING To Do With This Case

BREAKING NEWS: Geraldo Rivera Says Hoodie Killed Trayvon Martin


Iris Vander Pluym said...

Trayvon Martin's mother has an online petition to the Florida State Attorney General seeking justice for her son, should anyone wish to sign. When I signed it on Wednesday there were a few thousand signatures. At the time of this comment posting, that number 254,947.

I am generally dubious about online petitions. As I wrote the other day, there is no telling whether this one will generate pressure that leads to a criminal prosecution (although it certainly cannot hurt). But at a minimum, signing it will let a grieving mother know there are citizens who care deeply about her unfathomable loss and are outraged by the inaction of the Sanford Police.

Anonymous said...

This case has awoken something in me, memories of the indignation i felt when I heard about the south,racism, injustice, murder,medgar, martin... Ive been writing of this issue a lot lately, less so of the middle east issues, which previously occupied my thoughts.
But imaging this was 60 years ago? or 40 years ago? or even ten years ago. Now were seeing the involvement of a black president, a strong well organised black community with leaders in the political and justice system, and even a black muslim offering money for the head of zimmerman culminating in an arrest and charges against zimmerman, to the anger of the racists. unimaginable before...

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Thanks, YE. Some parts of history have change, but, alas, some have not.

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