Ten things about the George Zimmerman trial

>> Monday, July 15, 2013

0. It was so nice and dark and quiet beneath all that sand.

I didn't follow the Zimmerman trial very closely at all.  I don't follow public trials at all, usually.  The media always gets everything wrong, for one thing.  It's a lot too much like work, for another thing.  It somehow strikes me as unseemingly voyeuristic for another, a form of rubbernecking.  I mostly avoided most of the news on purpose, and I saw very little of the testimony.

1. What I saw was a mess.

Nevertheless, I saw a couple of YouTube clips.  The longest one and the only one I sat through in its entirety was the cross-examination of the medical examiner, Dr. Shipping Bao.

I watched Dr. Bao's cross-examination because several of the websites I visit for news and opinion lauded Dr. Bao for supposedly holding his own against Zimmerman's attorneys.  But that isn't what I saw.  What I saw was a hostile witness who came across as evasive or maybe even a little confused.  In many parts of the country, medical examiners are what attorneys like to call "professional witnesses", that is they're witnesses who participate in so many trials, they're familiar with basic courtroom norms like waiting until a question is finished and any objections heard and resolved before answering, addressing responses to the jurors and not just to the judge or questioning attorney, speaking clearly for the court reporter, etc.  A witness who is a career professional in some field but has never testified in court isn't a professional witness; he or she may do well for themselves, through luck or preparation or good sense, but they don't have trial experience.  Cops are often professional witnesses, because showing up in court for their cases is part of their job.  Professional witnesses aren't just prosecution witnesses: for instance, the defense might call a forensic psychiatrist who has testified in hundreds of trials to offer testimony about the defendant's mental state at the time of the alleged crime.

Dr. Bao may be a great doctor, but he was a terrible witness.  That whole bit where it turned out he was reading from notes he prepared in anticipation of possible questions was just awful--a professional witness would know you just don't do that, you can testify from contemporaneous notes (e.g. notes made during the autopsy you performed), but you don't get to take the stand with a cheat sheet.  I don't know how it played to the jurors, but as a defense lawyer I thought it made him look like he was trying to pull something.  I would have been happy to find out a witness I was cross-examining was doing that; sure, I'd play up my outrage in the courtroom, why not, but deep down I'd be delighted that it looked like the good doctor was so out to get my client he prepared a script.

From what little else I saw of the other witnesses, it looked like a lot of the State Of Florida's case was like that.  Lousy witnesses who seemed kinda clueless at best, contradictory and hard to pin down at worse.  That kind of thing is what costs one side of a trial their whole case.

2. Sometimes assholes walk.

This is how our system works.  Sometimes assholes walk.  Sometimes they walk because, technically, being an asshole isn't a crime even if someone dies because you're an asshole.  Sometimes they walk because the system is supposed to favor assholes walking--that whole classic post-Enlightenment legal principle that it's better for five (or sometimes ten) guilty men to walk than one innocent be punished for something he didn't do.

3. I don't know what happened anymore.

When Zimmerman said Trayvon Martin beat him up, I was outraged because I'd seen photos where he looked pretty unbeaten to me.  Then some other photos showed up and he looked kinda roughed up.  Claims were made by various parties and then withdrawn.

Here's what I think I know now: George Zimmerman was a wannabe cop who was cruising his neighborhood looking for crimes to thwart.  He saw a black kid in a hoodie who he thought was up to no good, and Zimmerman called the cops and the cops said they'd handle it.  Zimmerman decided that wasn't good enough, and ignoring the instruction to stay in his truck, he got out of the truck and followed the kid...

...and something happened...

...and George Zimmerman had a gun and Trayvon Martin had Skittles, and Trayvon Martin died.

That middle part?  A mystery, a puzzle box.  An insoluble puzzle box, because nobody knows what happened.  Hell, even if I wanted to believe George Zimmerman, what I think I know about memory and the way the brain works (or doesn't work) in a moment of trauma would require me to take even Zimmerman's "honest" memories with a large salt lick.

Nobody knows what happened in that middle part.  Not the morning-after conservatives who have decided Trayvon Martin was a thug, not the morning-after liberals who have decided George Zimmerman is a monster; nobody.

And that middle part, by the way, is what a trial lawyer would call "reasonable doubt".

4. It's about guns.

Actually, there is something I think I know: I'm pretty confident that if George Zimmerman hadn't had a chrome-plated cock supplement in his pocket, he would have stayed in his car.  And Trayvon Martin would still be alive.

I think you have to rewind it all the way back to that point.  It isn't about whether Zimmerman had some right to defend himself, though we should probably talk about that.  It's that it's hard to imagine that if Zimmerman had been unarmed, he still would have gotten out of his car; and getting out of his car was the proximate cause of whatever happened next.  If Trayvon Martin attacked George Zimmerman, it was because Zimmerman got out of his car.  If George Zimmerman threatened Trayvon Martin with a gun, it happened after Zimmerman got out of his car.  So why did he get out of his car?

Because he felt tough.  Tougher than the kid he was watching, anyway.  If he felt unsafe, he could drive away--he'd done what he thought was his duty by calling the cops.

No, he had that shiny silver courage in his pocket, and then he killed a kid with it.

5. It's really about guns.

At the common law, and in many states to this day, you have a duty to withdraw from a confrontation if you aren't at home.  At the common law, and in many states to this day, you have no claim to self-defense if you initiated a confrontation, unless you tried to withdraw and the confrontation was renewed by the other party.  And at common law, and in many states to this day, you have an obligation to use only proportional force if you are unable to withdraw.

These concepts make sense, which is how they became the common law in the first place: the common law is the traditional law, established by generations of judges and legal scholars after much trial (no pun intended) and error.  It makes sense that you can't go around starting fights, sticking around for them, murdering the people you bullied and then shrug your shoulders and say, "Hey, I was just defending myself."  It's a very commonsense approach.

From what I can glean, none of this is the law in Florida anymore, nor in an increasingly-large chunk of the country.  This appears to be the result of NRA lobbying, with states increasingly passing "Stand Your Ground" laws that remove a duty to withdraw, expand your right to self-defense, and immunize you from criminal and civil liability if you use excessive force.

This is pretty appalling, and frightening.

In another place and time, George Zimmerman would be expected to stay in his truck.  If he stupidly got out of his truck and confronted Trayvon Martin, he'd be expected to withdraw to his truck.  If Trayvon pursued him and started punching him, Zimmerman would be allowed to punch and push back to keep himself from being hit, but he would only be allowed to pull a knife or gun and exercise lethal force if Martin were doing so as well.

Florida law--and the law in an increasing number of states--is evidently designed to protect assholes.

6. It's really, really about guns.

George Zimmerman may not be a monster, but he's definitely a bogeyman.  I mean a literal, real, actual bogeyman.  Those of us who favor gun control are, I think, scared of two things.  The first is crazy people with guns, the kind who get hold of firearms legally or unlawfully and proceed to shoot up a school or movie theatre or political meet-and-greet because "the silicon chip inside [their] head gets switched to overload", as the old song goes.  And the second is George Zimmerman.

Or, more broadly speaking, assholes with guns.

Because if George Zimmerman is the gun-advocate's example of one of those law-abiding gun owners--Jesus.

We're scared of some nosy asshole busybody who feels eight feet tall because of his gun, who thinks he's Superman and Batman and Green Lantern all rolled up into one because he thinks he has the superhuman ability of stopping power tucked inside his belt.  If someone asked you what you were doing walking through a neighborhood or what you were up here, you used to be able to tell them to go fuck themselves without thinking they might draw on you and try out their best Eastwoodian sneer.

And while I'm not a big fan or practitioner of violence, you used to be able to walk up to someone who started minding your business and stick your face in his face and ask him if he had a problem; well gods help you if he has a gun and feels the least bit intimidated, lest he whip it out to reassure himself he has the power here after all.

And for those of us who wouldn't be inclined to walk up to someone and go nose to nose and ask what was up his ass, let's hope all of our neighbors are as intimidated.  A bullet goes where the laws of physics tell it to, and just because all the future George Zimmermans of the world were aiming at their interlocutors, doesn't mean their shot doesn't go far and wide and through your toddler watching TV two houses away.  Gods help us if everybody's packing heat: Zimmerman meets Zimmerman in the backyard, "What's your problem?" "No, what's your problem?"  If we're lucky, they only kill or maim each other.

Honestly, if I had to say whether I was more afraid of a bad guy with a gun than a good guy with a gun, I'm more afraid of a good guy with a gun.  What if he's an asshole?

7. Did I mention it was also about assholes?

Because if you didn't pick up on it, George Zimmerman is an asshole.  A monster, like his lawyer says he's been made out to be?  I have no idea.  A racist?  Yeah, but probably in a low-key way we'll get back to in just a second.  An asshole, though: definitely.

I mean, it's one thing (maybe) to drive around your neighborhood looking for things to call the cops about.  Though you have to wonder about a guy who's just assuming the worst and ratting out strangers who aren't doing a helluva lot of anything; I mean, even if we take a charitable look at Zimmerman's claim that Martin was "casing" the neighborhood, it's still just someone walking down the street and looking at things, which used to be something you could do in this country.  But then you get out of your vehicle after being told to let the cops handle it?  You follow someone around and then, what, you're a grown man and you can't figure out a way to de-escalate a situation in a way that doesn't end with you shooting someone?  Which I assume you were prepared to do, else why did you have that goddamn pistol?


8. It's about race.

Do I think Zimmerman would have followed a white kid around?  I kinda doubt it.  I agree with the press release the Southern Poverty Law Center put out:
Was race at the heart of it? Ask yourself this question: If Zimmerman had seen a white youth walking in the rain that evening, would he have seen him as one of "them," someone about to get away with something?
No, I don't believe he would have.  I don't think a white kid would have struck him any particular way at all--though, then again, Zimmerman is an asshole and he was looking for trouble and he had that gun that made him feel all tough-and-handsome-like, so maybe he would have.

I think one of the things that some people have difficulty grokking is that racism isn't just putting on a white robe and burning a cross in someone's yard.  There's also that tiny short-circuit most of us in the United States suffer from, that tiny synaptic gap where we react a certain way--even for just a flash--and react without thinking, jump to certain assumptions that have we have no evidence for.  I think those of us who are self-aware enough catch ourselves doing it, and if we're not in the next tier of racists we feel guilty and uncool.  The next tier of racists doesn't feel guilty.  And the next tier acts on it, and somewhere up the scale you do finally get to the people in hoods burning crosses.  But it's hard--I hope it isn't impossible, but who knows--to evolve past that very lowest tier so that the bad circuit is bypassed altogether and that spark never ever jumps the gap again.

I think Zimmerman's in one of those mid-tier ranges.  I don't think he burns crosses and I don't know if he uses the n-word; but I think he saw Trayvon Martin as a black guy in a hoodie before he saw him as a teenager walking through a neighborhood.  And if he did, he obviously didn't second-guess himself and say, "George, Jesus Christ, what's wrong with you?"

9. It's so about race.

But one of the ugliest things about this hasn't been Zimmerman.  It's been the way so many people in this country have been willing to label the casualty of whatever happened that night as a thug, the way so many people have stereotyped Trayvon Martin.  So many comment threads full of white panic about the black kid who surely was at fault here, and they can't be racist to point this out because George Zimmerman is Hispanic, so the people saying it's about race must be the real racists.

Well I'm not going to wholly disagree: if you didn't grok this from the penultimate paragraph in the last section, I'm afraid we're all the real racists.  It's just that some of the real racists in this country realize this is a problem and feel bad about it and want to better themselves and their culture, while an unpleasant number apparently want to embrace the racism and even feel good about it while denying it exists at all (neat trick, that).

A lot of Zimmerman supporters want to go well beyond what might be a reasoned defense of George Zimmerman, e.g. that he was apparently within his rights under Florida law, or that there's some confusion about what happened that night and Zimmerman was and is entitled to the benefit of the doubt under our legal customs.  These folks need heroes and villains, and if Zimmerman is to be a folk hero they must necessarily demonize the other, and the cheapest way to do that, they find, is to resort to stereotypes.  And when they get called out for resorting to ugly stereotypes, they don't recant, they double down.

And then, when their side "wins", some of them want to go all-in: if they're not the real racists, if the real racists are the black folks saying race was a factor in all this, there will probably be some civil unrest, some rioting, some vigilante justice.  It's hard not to armchair psychoanalyze and label this projection: these white folks "worrying" about retaliation wish they weren't so civilized and could give into their animal instincts as they're sure those people will.  This is thoroughly repulsive.

One of the conclusions a person of good will has to draw from all of this, I think, is that as far as we've come along on race in the past six decades--we no longer have de jure segregation with separate schools and bathrooms, we no longer have whites-only swimming pools and lunchcounters, etc.--we have so far yet to go that one wants to lie down in the middle of the road and die of grief.

10. But is anyone listening to themselves?

But I was less angry and embittered by the usual suspects than I was by my own fellow travelers.  Because as disappointed as I might be by overt, high-tier racists, I don't expect any better.  I am unsurprised by the way gun advocates spin this whole tragedy--it's hardly different from the last time they spun a tragedy.  While I'm not religious, I can't help recalling Luke 23:34, the perfectly apt quote for this kind of thing, these kinds of people.

But this weekend I saw a lot of Twitter tweets and Facebook status updates from people whose values I generally share expressing so much rage and unreasonableness, I found myself shrinking back in shock.  Some from friends who I in fact know, some from "friends" in the Twitter and Facebook sense, i.e. people, mostly famous or at least Internet famous, who I don't know in any way at all other than the things they've said and done.  I saw too many opinion pieces from thinkers I respect enough to regularly follow and read their blogs and websites where the writers frothed at the mouth without the kind of discretion and judgement I look to them for.

I saw responses reflecting a kind of disappointment I think is probably inappropriate: not just the disappointment that a young man is dead and a family bereft, but a disappointment that Zimmerman was acquitted by a system that is designed to acquit people where there is reasonable doubt about a criminal accusation.  As if these folks, disappointed in the result, could presume to know in advance what the result of the trial should have been.  As if the whole purpose of the trial was to proceed to the predetermined result of guilt and the only question was how much time George Zimmerman should serve.

I saw highly intelligent, educated, enlightened people seemingly confuse moral responsibility--that Zimmerman shot a child, whether he reasonably thought he had to or out of callousness, can't be disputed--with legal adjudication of guilt.  That the Florida jury could only reach one result, and that failure to reach that result could only be explained by racial prejudice, was taken as a given.  That assholes sometimes walk where there is reasonable doubt as to what really happened was given little or no recognition.  A bedrock principle of our post-Enlightenment legal system, that crimes are defined as specifically as possible so that citizens know what is illegal, and thus a prosecutor must prove a criminal charge as if he's following a recipe, and even a failure to prove just one, single element beyond all reasonable doubt is fatal to the entire prosecution, was widely ignored.  (C.f. Digby's honest acknowledgement, which I greatly appreciate, that the instructions for manslaughter--a verdict she thought would have been appropriate--could justify acquittal.)  People I think should know better joined people I don't expect to, to confuse acquittal with innocence when it might mean "not proven" or "whatever George Zimmerman did wrong, if anything, wasn't this".

I saw people repeat equivalencies that, upon inspection, proved to be dubious ones.  A popular meme compared Zimmerman to a woman named Marissa Alexander, convicted of several counts of aggravated assault after a Florida judge threw out Ms. Alexander's Stand-Your-Ground defense.  This was presented as evidence that an African-American woman could not expect the same results as a Hispanic male in a racist legal system, a proposition which may indeed be true, but the case of a woman who allegedly threatened her husband, went to the garage to retrieve a firearm, came back and then apparently fired several shots in his direction (her defense called them warning shots, it appears the prosecutor called them misses) may not, in fact, be the best evidence of institutional racism in Florida's legal system.  Other cases were mentioned that might be examples of why Stand Your Ground laws are bad ideas, of why firearm possession is generally a bad idea, of institutional racism within the legal system in Florida and elsewhere--but few, if any, writers did more than copy'n'paste a link to an opinion piece regarding a news item that might be distinguishable from whatever happened in the Zimmerman case.

Worst of all, I found myself thinking again and again as I scrolled through tweets, updates, comments, retweets, editorials, articles, posts, etc., how much the authors sounded embarrassingly like the other side would have if Zimmerman had been convicted.  It was not just disappointment, but the tenor of so much of the disappointment.  The knee-jerkiness, reflexive and reactionary.  I wondered if my side would sound as leeringly triumphant as the other side did now, if Zimmerman were convicted.

I found myself wondering why so many of my fellow-travelers were picking sides at all.  Wasn't our side supposed to be the side of rationality and truth and systematic justice, and not merely the side of a person?  I don't mean that we aren't on Trayvon's side as the victim killed too young by an asshole's gun-enabled assholery; I mean that isn't our side supposed to be the one that accepts losses with grace, that takes setbacks as momentary defeats, whose eyes are on a prize that remains glimmering on an eternal horizon however many times the forces of the unenlightened past grab us and kick at our knees?  Weren't we supposed to hope, not for a conviction, but for the fairest trial possible, whether or not we liked the defendant?  If the trial was fair, aren't we supposed to accede to the result with dignity and grace, accepting it as the right result, even if we find the chief beneficiary fairly despicable?  And if the trial wasn't fair, instead of finger-pointing and jeering and sneering about what else did anyone expect from the crackers and from Florida, isn't our side supposed to be the one that offers reasoned analyses and practical criticism, that takes an unfair trial in stride and looks for the remedies that might bring things closer to fairness, and if that isn't possible to at least make future trials fair?

Aren't we the good guys?  Because I think we sound like a bunch of assholes right now.  Not all of us.  There are exceptions.  But enough of us to make me feel down on our tribe right now.  What's the point if we're no better than the reactionaries and bigots?

We should be ashamed of ourselves.


MWT Monday, July 15, 2013 at 1:21:00 PM EDT  

Thanks for the summary. I too ignored pretty much all of it, and was looking forward to an actual lawyer saying something in a level-headed way.

Robbin Monday, July 15, 2013 at 2:34:00 PM EDT  

Warning: Rambling commences...It is difficult to articulate that I know the jury made the correct decision while at the same time articulating that I think Zimmerman is a violent person who murdered a child. For me it comes to him lurking around in the dark with a gun literally looking for trouble. Who does that? I have thought, for example, I would rather experience 10 home invasions then have one child killed under the guise of protecting me. People said he was a helpful neighbor. NO HE WASN'T! That's like saying a teacher who is a child molester was a really great teacher. Um, no he wasn't actually because molesting children makes him an asshole teacher. "She was a really good wife except for that time she put rat poison in her husband's coffee for the life insurance policy."

Anonymous,  Monday, July 15, 2013 at 6:15:00 PM EDT  

Continuing our earlier Twitter discussion...

There is no doubt in my mind that Zimmerman is morally responsible for the death of Martin. By all accounts, he initiated a violent confrontation by getting out of his car, armed, in the vicinity of someone he had clearly identified as hostile. As a licensed firearm carrier and the receiver of law enforcement training, it is right to hold him to a higher behavioral standing than other citizens. I hope the family files and wins a wrongful death suit against him.

Sadly, I think that as you say, the jury appears to have correctly interpreted Florida law as explicitly not defining Zimmerman-killing-Martin as murder or manslaughter. There's a difference between the common sense understanding of the word "murder" and the Florida law understanding of that word. It's an extremely bad law, probably correctly applied.


There are four opportunities for a bad law that unjustly PUNISHES someone to be thwarted: first by the legislature (just not adopting it), second by the executive (by vetoing it or refusing to enforce it), third by the judiciary (the appeals process in which a law can be declared unconstitutional), fourth by the jury (nullification; refusing to convict).

However, (according to my admittedly limited understanding of the judicial system in Florida) there are only two opportunities to thwart a bad law that unjustly lets someone off: the legislature and executive veto. Prosecutors cannot appeal an acquittal. Nobody ever has standing to sue to overturn the law until after they're dead. And it would be bad precedent (especially in Florida) for juries to be encouraged to jail people who have legally not committed a crime.

I think that this does rise to the level of the system being broken, but I have no idea how to fix it in a way that would not make things worse. When push comes to shooting, a legal system is only as good as the people charged with implementing it.

Eric Monday, July 15, 2013 at 8:39:00 PM EDT  

John, when a jury lets someone off the hook, there's no legal remedy if the citizenry thinks it was unjust.

But I think people also need to remember that this was put into the system as a feature, not a bug. Not a well-implemented feature, mind you: the history of racism, especially in the South, is full of acquitted whites and wrongly-convicted blacks. But the default for the system--in principle--is that if the state fails to make their case, the defendant walks, as legally innocent as if he were never charged.

Those who are angry about the result (as opposed to merely unhappy) might temper their anger by recalling how often in the South a mob decided they were displeased with the criminal justice process when a young black man was accused of rape or of assault against a white, and took matters into their own hands and lynched the accused, sometimes (though perhaps rarely) after he was acquitted by a jury. They might reflect upon how many times our system has failed by paying mere lip service to its principles while railroading an innocent. They might take note that maybe the problem isn't that Zimmerman was treated well by the system, but that others aren't: if it's unfair that Zimmerman was acquitted where an African-American might have been convicted, maybe the problem isn't that Zimmerman was acquitted.

Zimmerman is an asshole who was the proximate cause of a child's death. If there's a Hell--not something I personally believe in, which seems unfortunate at times like this--he probably ought to burn in it. He's morally culpable. But the system, for all its awful failings (and believe me, I have a better idea of how terrible it is than most do--I've been working in it for fifteen often benighted years) is designed to protect assholes from the likes of us, well-meaning people who might let their anger displace their reason, leading us to behave as if we weren't aspirants to a society of laws.

travispizel Tuesday, July 16, 2013 at 12:24:00 AM EDT  

Well, what you *think* you know is completely wrong. George Zimmerman was not just cruising the neighborhood looking for crimes to thwart. He was on his way to Target when he saw an unfamiliar person walking through a gated community. This is the part I think people either purposefully chose to ignore, or just flat out don't want to hear. Think about that....and unfamiliar person in a GATED community. I live in a neighborhood that is not gated, be we all know each other. If there is someone walking around I watch them too - because I wonder why they are there. They are unfamiliar in a place where unfamiliar people usually are not. This was a kid in a GATED community. As a neighborhood watch person for a GATED community there there had been RECENT breakins, and unfamiliar person walking around SHOULD raise suspicions. I've heard so many people say that the cops told him not to follow - so vehemently do they say the cops told him to stop following that they believe this is the SOLE reason he is guilty of murder. Have you read the transcript of the 911 call? The dispatcher asked if he was following the man. George said yes. The dispatcher then said - and I quote "Ok, we don't need you to do that." It wasn't "Stay in your vehicle sir." It wasn't "We've got it from here." It wasn't "Stop now or you risk being called a racist stalker and you will be guilty of murder in the eyes of many." It was simply "We don't need you to do that." I would have done the EXACT same thing George did - I would have got out of my car, and watched him from afar, so that when the cops came and they called to find out where I was at (because he gave them his phone number to contact him when they arrived in the neighborhood) I could point out to the cops where the kid was. You know what I think happened? EXACTLY what George said happened. he got out of the car to see where the kid went, lost track of him for a second, and then the 6 foot 2 17 year old kid - unarmed but bigger, stronger, and faster than George, circled around and was wanted to teach this "crazy ass cracker" (the only racist remark on record for this case, by the way - made by TREYVON MARTIN) a lesson for daring to following him. He asked him if he had a problem, punched him in the nose, and then took him to the ground. People who want to make this into a race issue? Pay attention to who made the only racist remark on record. Pay attention to the fact that George Zimmerman stood up for the unfair treatment of a homeless black man by his city's corrupt police department. People should stop being shocked that we was found NOT GUILTY when the DA declined to press charges because they found no evidence to refute his story.

Kathy Tuesday, July 16, 2013 at 8:46:00 AM EDT  

I don't think that comparing this case to Marissa Alexander's is all that misguided (although it's certainly different in that Alexander's case involves a domestic dispute, and we could interrogate the way the justice system treats those kinds of cases all day long). My point is that it doesn't seem unreasonable to me that Alexander should be acquitted under Stand Your Ground, especially since NOBODY DIED. But I do understand how reasonable doubt would lead to Zimmerman's acquittal on the murder charge; what I don't understand is how killing a child--which he is manifestly guilty of--doesn't lead to some sort of manslaughter conviction.

Ted Matherly Tuesday, July 16, 2013 at 9:19:00 AM EDT  

Re: the "tiny short circuit." Its not just most of us, its pretty universal. Lots of work in social psychology has shown that people have automatic evaluative reactions to seeing outgroup faces (i.e whites seeing black faces and v-v, Fazio, et al. 1995), and that there are other unsettling effects such as tending to identify weapons more quickly after seeing black faces (Payne 2001).

The point is - everyone does this, but, as you say, many people are aware of this automatic behavior and attempt to correct for it (something like "white guilt"). Others may not make that correction, and Zimmerman's apparent failure to do so may have played a key role in his decision to escalate.

Eric Tuesday, July 16, 2013 at 9:30:00 AM EDT  

travispizel, I hate to be snarky, but line breaks are your friend.

I don't see how anything you wrote contradicts the basic assertion that Zimmerman was the proximate cause of Martin's death. There's certainly an issue as to what happened during the confrontation between Zimmerman and Martin, and there's your account and Zimmerman's various accounts and there's whatever actually happened. Enough for their to be reasonable doubt, which is grounds for an acquittal.

That doesn't mean that Zimmerman isn't morally responsible for Martin's death.

You seem to think Zimmerman's only option was to stalk Martin. Even if we take your account as accurate, and choose to believe that Martin circled around to confront Zimmerman, one wonders why Zimmerman couldn't cruise up alongside Martin or call out to him: "Hi, how's it going? You new to the neighborhood?" I find it hard, though not impossible, to believe Zimmerman wouldn't have done something like that if Martin had been white. Which brings up something I think you and I are going to disagree upon: I think Zimmerman thought Martin was suspicious because he was a black stranger, not because he was merely a stranger.

But then you take George at his word. May I submit to you two points: (1) even if Zimmerman is telling the story to the best of his honest recollection, the brain is not very good at processing memories during traumatic moments--which this was, no matter who started what--and tends to invent details to fill in gaps. Memory is not reliable. And (2) that Zimmerman is an interested party; this is notable in two respects, first that it means he has a motive to tell the story in a way favorable to him and second even if he's trying to be candid and objective, the brain tries to frame narratives in a favorable light to oneself. That is, Zimmerman has a motive to lie, but even if he's being honest his recollections should be taken with reserve because memory isn't reliable and the brain usually tries to justify itself.

While you say you would have done exactly what Zimmerman did in his position, I find it interesting that you don't say what you would have done if you were in Martin's. If you were being followed by a stranger, would you run or would you confront him or would you nervously proceed and hope he went away. If you confronted him, would you ask him what his problem was? If you felt threatened, would you punch him? If you realized he was armed, would you decide it was you or him? Did Martin have any right to defend himself, or does that only apply when you're not an African-American teenager?

Just wondering.

Eric Tuesday, July 16, 2013 at 9:39:00 AM EDT  

Kathy, thank you. I think there are definitely problems that the Alexander case highlights: the injustice of mandatory minimums being one of the biggest.

The chief problem with using Alexander as a poster child for Stand Your Ground or as an example of disparate racial treatment, unfortunately, is that there's evidence that Alexander had a fight with her husband, her husband made a comment about the paternity of one of her children, Alexander said something along the lines of she'd show him or fix him, went to the garage, came back with a gun, and fired what has been called in some corners "a warning shot" at her husband's head. This evidence comes from the husband, and everybody has to assess his credibility for themselves (you may think he's lying, and for all I know he is).

The point is that you could weigh the evidence in each case and reasonably decide Alexander isn't a Stand Your Ground case and Zimmerman is, without any inconsistency or cognitive dissonance.

All of this does point to another problem with SYG laws, one that's been discussed several other places: one can make a case that the biggest lesson you can draw from a comparison of Alexander and Zimmerman is that Alexander should have killed all her witnesses, that SYG creates an incentive to murder by removing questions about reasonableness that would come up in a common law self-defense claim.

JSA Lowe Tuesday, July 16, 2013 at 2:14:00 PM EDT  

Well-written and well-reasoned, unsurprising given your background. But 24 hours after reading and mulling, I still have two caveats:

1. That single Marissa Anderson source you provided doesn't reflect the controversy accurately. It's not from a paper of record and there are other sources which provide wildly contradictory accounts. I think in all fairness you might have linked to one of those as well. It's not clear (despite the judge's ruling) what actually happened between her and the man from whom she was separated. There's some serious murkiness represented by the wild variety of narratives, and your choosing this particular one and excluding the others is misleading.

2. Since you acknowledge that "we have so far yet to go that one wants to lie down in the middle of the road and die of grief," (which is beautifully put by the way), why then be so surprised that your friends might be "expressing so much rage and unreasonableness"? Particularly if those friends are people of color? When one encounters a lifetime of ten thousand excruciatingly unfair rulings, sometimes there's a straw (or in this case a branch) that just breaks your emotional back.

Put as briefly as possible, as a white person I don't think I get to tell my friends of color whether their emotional response is excessive, irrational, not in line with correct legal-philosophical standards, or wrong. It is exactly as it is, for generations' worth of reasons I will probably never be able to understand from the inside out; and as an ally what I get to do is shut up and listen. I'll never grok, as you put it, what's really been going on for people who are standing outside the trial weeping in "rage and unreasonableness" over the verdict. So I don't think they should be schooled in the "inappropriateness" of their genuine response—in fact, I think it's kind of racist.

Your first 9 sections had me nodding violently, however, for the most part, and as I say you're an amazing writer. Thanks for your hard work on this piece.

Eric Tuesday, July 16, 2013 at 5:06:00 PM EDT  

Thank you for the compliment, JSA Lowe. Regarding your objections:

1) The link I provided was to an article on the website for the Florida Times-Union, "a major daily newspaper in Jacksonville, Florida, USA," and "Widely known as the oldest newspaper in the state." I'm not sure where you got the idea that wasn't a paper of record.

I agree there are a number of varying accounts, and I also agree the press almost always gets legal stories wrong. On the other hand, in this instance we're talking about an interview with the alleged victim of an assault, using direct quotations of his version of events, from an on-the-scene, established regional newspaper. At the very least, we can expect the coverage is based on direct sources, and might presume the victim's interview bears some semblance to the testimony he offered at trial. His credibility certainly might be questioned, but the bottom line would be that this was an example of evidence offered at Alexander's trial that might be (and apparently was) persuasive to the trier-of-fact.

As I said in another comment in the thread, I think there are injustices the Alexander case illustrates. However, I don't think she's a good example for what many folks attempted to illustrate instead.

2) I think you misread the final section. I write of the responses of "fellow-travelers" my "side", etc. The main target of the passage, I'm afraid, was my fellow liberals and progressives of whatever ethnicity, and I think as a progressive I'm perfectly entitled to call my own side out for what I think is disappointing behavior.

I especially feel comfortable doing so, regardless of my friends and fellow-travelers cultural backgrounds, when the entire point is that I hold our side to a higher standard (c.f. the first paragraph of point 10, where I say I expect very little from some quarters and wasn't surprised when they sank to my expectations).

I also feel obligated to point out that even if I had been talking about a demographic (for want of a better word) and not an ideological coalition (for want of a better phrase), there's a fine line between sensitivity and being a poor "ally". (Actually, that's true even when talking to your ideological friends.) While I wouldn't presume to tell anyone how they should feel, I think you owe it to friends and partners to tell them, directly or generally, when they might be acting badly, to deal with those you care about honestly.

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