Every now and then, America generates the perfect media storm. The death of Trayvon Martin was one such, featuring just about every hot-button law and order issue you could imagine: guns and neighbourhood vigilantes, self-defence and the right to carry concealed weapons. And of course, permeating everything, race.
Out loud, race was barely mentioned during the month-long trial, but it hung over proceedings like a poisonous vapour. History is likely to add the Martin case to a long line stretching from the pre-civil rights era show trials of blacks subjected to Jim Crow justice, through to the acquittal of the Los Angeles police officers in the beating of black motorist Rodney King in 1992, and the ultimate media circus of the OJ Simpson trial two years later.
And if the topic of race was not explicitly raised, that was because no one needed to be reminded that had Trayvon Martin been white, his fatal confrontation with George Zimmerman might never have happened. And, of course, had the six-person jury been all-black instead of all-white, the verdict might well have been different. But not necessarily. The difference is that, unlike in the parodies of justice in the segregated South where blacks were automatically convicted if accused of a crime against a white, or in the King and Simpson cases, this time the strictly legal outcome – the acquittal of Zimmerman by his peers – feels right.
But what about the spirit of the law, one may ask, as opposed to its letter? Trials though are not morality plays; those who seek such catharsis should go to the theatre, not to a courtroom. On this occasion the law has not been an ass.
Well before Saturday evening’s verdict, impartial expert opinion leant to the view that even if Florida’s permissive self-defence laws were removed from the equation, the case for second-degree murder – requiring proof that even if the crime was not premeditated, Mr Zimmerman had displayed evil intent and hatred when he shot Mr Martin – simply was not being made.
Nonetheless, the judge allowed the prosecution to seek conviction on the lesser charge of manslaughter. But the jury threw that out too. The plain truth is that no one can say for sure what happened on that rainy Sunday evening of 26 February 2012 in the gated community of Sanford, Florida. There were no eyewitnesses, and it was never established whose voice, whether Zimmerman’s or Martin’s, was screaming for help in the background of the call to the emergency services. In a criminal court, a defendant’s guilt must be shown “beyond reasonable doubt”. Prosecutors failed to clear that fundamental hurdle.
Given America’s multi-tiered legal system, this may not be the end of the affair. Under the criminal law of Florida, Zimmerman has been acquitted. But the Justice Department in Washington faces intense pressure from civil rights groups to bring federal charges against him, under existing hate-crime legislation.
It is also possible that the Martin family could seek monetary redress for the loss of their son in civil court, where evidentiary standards are much lower. That indeed occurred in the Simpson case. This time, however, there has been no similar travesty of justice, and either course – whether civil or federal – would smack of double jeopardy. “The jury has spoken,” President Obama said at the weekend, as he urged calm. And, he could have added, one jury is enough.
As it is, and despite the acquittal, George Zimmerman’s life has probably been changed for ever. He is currently in hiding, a marked man who is now a target for a hothead’s vigilante justice – what he was accused of meting out to Trayvon Martin. He will, it appears, get his gun back, and as his lawyer Mark O’Mara drily noted: “There’s even more reason now, isn’t there?”
Even so, this case will surely not have the same impact on race relations in the US as the Rodney King case did, still less the 1968 murder of Martin Luther King, when entire cities went up in flames. Yes, there has been heated rhetoric, claims that the bad old days were never truly banished. But the protests and demonstrations in the 24 hours after the verdict was handed down – heartfelt yet almost entirely peaceful – surely tell a more accurate story.
The death of Trayvon Martin has proved that race is still a factor in national life – but name one country on earth which has a significant racial minority where it is not a factor. Beyond doubt race relations in the US have greatly improved. But there is still much to be done. If it is nonsense to argue that Zimmerman’s acquittal proves that the “New South” is as bad as the bigoted old one, it is equally absurd to pretend that, even after the election of a black president, the US has advanced to sunlit, post-racial uplands. “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” Obama remarked when the case first hit the headlines, 15 months ago. The worries of minority parents about how their children will be treated by a society whose institutions were forged and still mostly run by whites, persist even now, half a century after America’s civil rights revolution.
And one final, depressing thought. If the US had sensible gun laws, Trayvon Martin would not have died, and no one would have heard of George Zimmerman. Alas, even if you got rid of race in America, you’d never get rid of guns.