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.
One juror, speaking publicly for the first time since the verdict, told CNN on Tuesday that none of the jurors believed race had played a part in the shooting. Identified only as Miss B37, because the jurors cannot be named publically, she said Zimmerman’s “heart was in the right place” on the night he killed Martin, but he “just got displaced by the vandalism in the neighbourhoods and wanting to catch these people so badly that he went above and beyond what he really should have done”.
Under Florida’s broad self-defence law, he was not found by a jury to have any murderous intent. Even the police cited the law for not arresting Zimmerman for six weeks after Martin’s killing. The state’s laws set the bar too high for prosecutors to prove that Zimmerman had not acted in self-defence.
Stand your ground
Florida is one of 23 states in America with stand-your-ground laws that give someone a right to meet force with deadly force, with no duty to retreat, if they fear death or great bodily harm. Though the law was never raised during the trial, the judge in the Zimmerman case instructed the jury of five white women and one Hispanic woman in a way that allowed them to consider it as a legitimate defence.
Speaking on Tuesday at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Orlando, not far from the scene of Martin’s killing, the US attorney general, Eric Holder, called for the stand-your-ground laws to be reconsidered, saying the laws created “more violence than they prevent”.
Research has shown that black Americans are more than likely to be the victims of this violence. The Urban Institute, a Washington DC social-policy think tank analysed 4,650 FBI records of murders and found that white people who shoot black strangers have the highest chance of getting away with it and an even better chance in states with stand-your-ground laws; blacks had the lowest chance.
"These are laws that do potentially have a racial impact because of the way it stacks the burden: it creates situations like the Trayvon Martin case," says Denis Parker, director of the racial justice programme at the American Civil Liberties Union.
“Racial stereotypes inform so much in our society that these kind of laws have a strong impact if you start with the assumption that African-Americans are the aggressors. If you look at the criminal justice system as a whole, it works against people of colour.”
A report by the ACLU last month found that, in 2010, black Americans were nearly four times as likely as whites to be arrested on charges of marijuana possession, even though blacks and whites used the drug at similar rates. In states such as Minnesota and Iowa, blacks were eight times as likely to be arrested; it’s a trend in racial disparity that has grown in 38 states since 2001.
The New York Civil Liberties Union found that although they account for only 4.7 per cent of the city's population, black and Latino males accounted for 41.6 per cent of stop-and-frisks by police officers in 2011. The number of stops of young black men exceeded the city's population of young black males.
The Washington DC-based Sentencing Project says a black male born in 2001 has a 32 per cent chance of spending time in prison at some point in his life; a white male has a 6 per cent chance. On any given day, one in every 10 black males in their 30s are in prison or jail, the group says. Of all US prisoners, African-Americans represent 38 per cent, but just 13 per cent of the general population.
Black Americans also represent a disproportionately high number of death-row inmates, according to the Death Penalty Information Centre. In April 2012, of 3,170 inmates on death row 1,325 were African-American. Out of 1,339 people executed in the US since 1976, 35 per cent were black.
Racial caste system
Michelle Alexander, a law professor and civil-rights activist, crunched crime statistics for her seminal 2012 book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colourblindness. She found that the racial caste system had not been eliminated but merely redesigned by the criminal-justice system and law enforcement. The targeting of black men in the war on drugs had created as a substitute for the racist Jim Crow laws of the 1960s and turned millions of black Americans into second-class citizens.
The figures cited in her book are compelling, from the disproportionate number of black drivers stopped on the New Jersey turnpike to the numbers arrested for low-level drug offences.
In her book, Alexander says that the US “imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid”, and that in major US cities wracked by the drug war, as many as 80 per cent of young African-American men have criminal records and “are thus subject to legalised discrimination for the rest of their lives”.
A criminal-justice system that claims to be officially colourblind achieves such high levels of racial discrimination, Alexander says, by granting law-enforcement officials extraordinary discretion and making it impossible to prove that racial disparities are the product of intentional racial discriminalisation. “This simple design has helped to produce one of the most extraordinary systems of racialised social control the world has ever seen,” she writes.
Zimmerman’s acquittal for Martin’s killing exposed a further weakness in the US criminal justice system that protects the aggressor and punishes the victim where racial stereotyping is a factor.
“The Trayvon Martin episode is clear; it started because George Zimmerman believed in a stereotype that exists in America,” says Denis Parker.
“The association between colour and crime is a strong one in society, and it is one that we need to break or else it ends up in more of these episodes.”