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The Zimmerman Case Is About Race? Why?

We don’t generally spend a lot of time deconstructing patently silly op-eds, for two reasons: 1) they tend to be self-refuting, and 2) if you start down that path, it could rapidly become a full-time job. But sometimes an exception is in order, as in the case of this very dumb op-ed about the George Zimmerman case at CNN.com. As ill-informed as the piece is, I think that public dialogue about the case can’t be understood without recognizing that the author speaks for a great many people. So, let’s have at it.

The piece is titled “Zimmerman trial: It’s about race.” The author is Roxanne Jones, an African-American who came up through the world of sports, via ESPN, and is now CEO of the PUSH Marketing Group as well as a columnist for CNN. Her opinion that the Zimmerman trial is about race is one that evidently is commonly held, but the obvious question raised by CNN’s headline is: Why? What is it about the Zimmerman trial that makes it about race? Is every criminal case that involves protagonists of different ethnic backgrounds about race? If not, what distinguishes this case from many thousands of others? Bizarrely, Ms. Jones never tries to answer that basic question.

She writes:

We have all been duped in the Trayvon Martin case. Bamboozled.

This case was never “open and shut” as Martin family attorney Benjamin Crump insisted in a news conference at the start of the trial. I doubted it was that easy from Day One.

I’m no cynic but I am a realist. A realist who’s covered enough criminal trials to know for certain that the trial that plays out in the public over pep rally vigils and celebrity protests is never the trial that unfolds in the courtroom. I understand that race still matters deeply in our courtrooms, just as it does in our nation. And there’s no getting away from that fact.

What a breathtaking inversion! Noting that what happens in the courtroom is very different from what happens at “pep rally vigils and celebrity protests,” Jones concludes the reason is that “race still matters deeply in our courtrooms!” I would suggest that where race matters deeply is at pep rally vigils and celebrity protests, and what distinguishes the courtroom is that it is a place where the facts and the law, not the race of the participants, matter.

“This case is a perfect storm,” says Xavier Donaldson, a defense attorney and former prosecutor in New York. “You have to look at the nature of the case and the racial, political and social economics of the defendant and accused. You have a young black kid, walking with a sweatshirt on and some guy, who wants to be a cop, assumes he’s a criminal and shoots him dead.” Zimmerman has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder.

Evidently Mr. Donaldson has not been following the evidence at the trial. If the case were as he describes–Trayvon Martin walking along innocently and George Zimmerman, assuming he must be a criminal, shooting him dead for no apparent reason–then it would indeed be a mystery why pretty much everyone now expects Zimmerman to be acquitted. The scenario described by Donaldson does not remotely resemble the evidence that has been presented to the jury.

“Zimmerman had an image in his community as a good guy, who wanted to protect people. So he — and not Martin, the victim — has gotten the benefit of presumption of innocence. Normally, in murder cases that doesn’t happen. People generally believe that if you’ve been arrested and charged that you must have done something wrong, but those lines are blurred here,” says Donaldson.

Ms. Jones tells us that Donaldson is a lawyer, but that is hard to believe. The idea that there is something fishy about Zimmerman being accorded a presumption of innocence is profoundly ignorant. All criminal defendants–even white ones!–are entitled to that presumption. The presumption of innocence has nothing to do with victims of crimes. Further, it may be true that “People generally believe that if you’ve been arrested and charged that you must have done something wrong,” but that is not how criminal juries are instructed. Juries are told to presume that the defendant is innocent, and that the prosecution is required to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Apparently Jones and Donaldson feel aggrieved that the Zimmerman trial has proceeded according to the usual norms, and that Zimmerman is not being railroaded into a conviction based on prejudice.

It seems Zimmerman, in part because he belonged to his neighborhood watch group, has been granted the status of a police officer.

I have no clue what that means. It is the prosecution, not the defense, that keeps talking about Zimmerman being a neighborhood watch guy and wanting to be a policeman. Police officers, like anyone else, are entitled to defend themselves.

He even has police officers testifying in his favor that Trayvon’s father, Tracy Martin, told them that the voice screaming for help on the 911 call was “not his son” when he heard the tape for the first time. The father strongly denies he said those words to the police.

“Even!” So if Tracy Martin tells police officers one thing and then testifies the opposite in court, it is dirty pool to point out that he is contradicting himself? Or is Jones assuming that the police officers must by lying? And if so, why?

Normally, the prosecutor in a high-profile murder case puts forth evidence to prove the defendant’s guilt and aggressively goes after any notion that suggests that the victim is at fault. The prosecution’s goal is to do anything it can to convince a jury that the killer is a menace that needs to be taken off the street. That’s how the battle is won in the courtroom.

Actually, of course, prosecutors are subject to all kinds of legal rules and standards. Subject to those norms, they do try hard to win their cases, like all other lawyers.

But in the trial of Zimmerman, the prosecution — Richard Mantei — appears to be lying low and taking too many punches. Could it be that Mantei himself buys into the theory that Zimmerman is some misunderstood a do-gooder in the community? It’s just puzzling.

Maybe the solution to the puzzle is that the prosecutor has a lousy case that never should have been brought.

Words matter, as we have seen over the course of the trial. So when Mantei told the court before resting his case: “There are two people involved here. One of them is dead, and one of them is a liar,” I was shocked.

This is a murder case. One person is dead, and the other person is a murderer. Those words more accurately describe the facts presented in the case. There is no question that Zimmerman killed Martin, so there’s no reason to tiptoe around the words.

So this is the evidence that the prosecutor is pulling his punches: he called Zimmerman a liar! Jones thinks that it is more accurate to call Zimmerman a murderer, but it was not murder if he acted in self-defense, which is what the whole trial is about. Note that Jones never mentions that Zimmerman has claimed self-defense, let alone tries to show why that claim isn’t true.

And that’s exactly what is so troubling for myself and many others, especially in the black community. It has been all too easy an idea for people to entertain that Martin did something to cause his own murder. History tells us that in our nation’s courtrooms and even outside of those walls, my son, your son, our sons still don’t have the presumption of innocence, even when they are the victims of a murder.

Zimmerman says that Martin attacked him, knocked him to the ground, punched him in the face and banged his head into the pavement. Why is it “all too easy an idea for people to entertain” that what Zimmerman said could be true? It is consistent with the physical evidence and with the testimony of the only witness who saw any part of the altercation. And if Zimmerman isn’t telling the truth, how did he get that bloody nose and those gashes on the back of his head? Jones attempts no explanation; nor, as far as I have seen, do any of the other commentators and activists who try to racialize the case.

No one knows yet how this trial will end. Donaldson feels it’s too close to call until rebuttals are made and the case wraps up. “It could go either way,” Donaldson says.

But I do know one thing: We should not have to wear a Trayvon T-shirt to an awards show or attend a pep rally to remind America that when an unarmed child is confronted and gunned down in the street by a grown man who’s trained to kill, that’s murder. End of story.

Well, it would be, but that obviously is not what happened in the George Zimmerman case. Martin, several inches taller than Zimmerman and a pot-smoking MMA aficionado, was no child. Zimmerman was a grown man, but that he was “trained to kill” is a fantasy. Most important, of course, Zimmerman didn’t “gun down [Martin] in the street.” The two men got into a fight. There is no clear evidence of how it started, apart from Zimmerman’s statement that Martin jumped him. In any event, the “child” Martin clearly was getting the better of the fight; Zimmerman was beaten up, and Martin was unmarked. Zimmerman says that Martin was sitting on top of him and beating on him–which is what the only eyewitness describes, and what the physical evidence obviously suggests–and that he pulled his gun in self-defense because he was in fear of his life. If that scenario is correct, Zimmerman is innocent. How in the world can anyone write a column about the Zimmerman case without even trying to address any of the facts of the case?

Ms. Jones is aggrieved that the Zimmerman case is proceeding in the usual manner, with the defendant accorded the presumption of innocence to which he is constitutionally entitled, and the prosecution being required to prove its case. In Jones’s view, this is all unfair because the case is “about race.” But why? Suppose the races of the protagonists were reversed, so that an African-American shoots an unarmed “white Hispanic.” In his defense, he claims that the “white Hispanic” jumped him, knocked him to the ground, pounded his face, and finally, in desperation, the African-American pulled a gun and shot the “white Hispanic” in self-defense. Would that case be about race? In that case, would the African-American defendant be entitled to a presumption of innocence, and would the government be required to prove his guilt? Or would the fact that the “white Hispanic” was unarmed mean that the African-American defendant should be railroaded? “End of story.”

Efforts by activists and commentators like Ms. Jones to turn the Zimmerman case into a racial morality play are not just ignorant or misguided. They are deeply contemptible, and represent an attempt to undermine the legal process.

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