Can Florida stick to its guns?
A white man is acquitted of murdering an unarmed black teenager: now the entire US criminal justice system is on trial, once again, in the court of public opinion
Florida free: a demonstration supporting Trayvon Martin in Los Angeles, California. Photograph: Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters
Florida free: J’Mila Pittman at a rally in support of Trayvon Martin in Orlando, Florida. Photograph: David Manning/Reuters
Florida free: Nine-year-old Thandiee Abdullah at a protest, in California, against the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. Photograph: Mario Anzuoni/Reuters
Florida free: George Zimmerman in court in Sanford, Florida. He was acquitted of both the murder and the manslaughter of an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, in Florida, and the verdict sparked protests across the US. Photograph: Gary W Green/Reuters
In 2010, Marissa Alexander, a 31-year-old mother of three, fired a warning shot to scare off her abusive husband during a row at her home, in Florida, hitting a wall. After deliberating for 12 minutes, a jury convicted her of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. She is serving 20 years in prison.
That same year, 72-year-old Trevor Dooley pulled a gun on David James, during an argument that turned physical over skateboarding in a basketball court. He shot and killed the 41-year-old father after James lunged for the gun. A Florida court sentenced him to eight years in prison for manslaughter.
On the night of February 26th, 2012, George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old self- styled neighbourhood watchman in the small Florida town of Sanford, chased after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, because the hoodie-clad teenager looked suspicious to him as he returned from a local shop, and shot him dead during a scuffle. Last Saturday, Zimmerman was acquitted for both the murder and manslaughter of Martin.
There were differences between the cases, including the grounds used to prosecute and defend the actions. But in the aftermath of Zimmerman’s acquittal, civil-rights activists highlighted one notable difference: Dooley and Alexander are black; Zimmerman is not. For many, Zimmerman’s acquittal affirms the belief that the US criminal justice system is biased against black Americans.
The verdict sparked protests in major US cities, which turned violent in Los Angeles and Oakland. Demonstrators held up posters that read “I Am Trayvon Martin.” They wore hoodies in Martin’s memory and carried bags of Skittles, the sweets Martin bought at the shop just before he was shot.
Zimmerman’s acquittal has brought race relations and racial stereotyping into US national debate again and raised yet more questions about the fairness of the US courts.
Martin’s family lawyer and protestors evoked the memory of two famous racially motivated killings dating back to the era of the civil-rights movement: Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African-American murdered in Mississippi, in 1955, by two white men after talking to a 21-year-old white woman; and Medgar Evers, the black civil-rights activist from Mississippi who was shot dead by a white supremacist, in 1963.
A jury found Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder and manslaughter in the fatal shooting of Martin, believing that Zimmerman had, under Florida’s “stand your ground” law, acted in self-defence, proving that there was a reasonable belief he was going to be hurt or killed if he did not defend himself.
Prosecutors had argued that Zimmerman, who is part Hispanic, saw himself as a wannabe cop, and assumed that the black teenager wearing a hooded sweatshirt was out to cause trouble.
Even though the judge barred the issue of race from the case, the prosecution still argued that Zimmerman “profiled” Martin in deciding to pursue the unarmed teenager. To everyone listening, this was as good as saying that he “racially profiled” Martin, particularly in light of the court evidence of phonecalls to police which showed Zimmerman was obsessed with law and order, and with black males.