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One Trayvon Martin Case, But Two Very Different Trials

Thousands of people gathered in Manhattan's Union Square in March 2012 to call for an arrest in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Similar rallies were held all over the country.
John Minchillo
Thousands of people gathered in Manhattan's Union Square in March 2012 to call for an arrest in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Similar rallies were held all over the country.

One gray spring afternoon last year, thousands of people descended on Manhattan's Union Square for a rally to call for the arrest of George Zimmerman, the man who shot and killed Trayvon Martin. It had been several weeks since Martin, an unarmed black 17-year-old, was killed by Zimmerman, then 28, who identifies himself as Hispanic, after a confrontation one Sunday night in a gated housing community where both Zimmerman and Martin's father resided.

The police in Sanford, Fla., held Zimmerman for a night and released him after deciding he'd acted in self-defense.

But outcry on social media was quickly turning the incident into a national news story, and rallies like the one in New York were being held all over the country, in places like Washington, Philadelphia, Chicago and Oakland, Calif.

Martin's parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, were there, as was Benjamin Crump, their lawyer. "My son did not deserve to die," Fulton said to the throng. Many of them were wearing hoodies like Martin.

"Prosecute Zimmerman!" people yelled. "Justice for Trayvon!"

But the particulars of the shooting and the case weren't the only thing on the agenda; an onlooker could be been forgiven if she'd thought the rally was about racial profiling by the New York Police Department.

When Icovered the rally last year for The Huffington Post, everyone I interviewed brought up stop-and-frisk, one of the most controversial tools in the NYPD's tool kit, without prompting. The practice gives officers wide discretion to stop and search people whom they deem suspicious and who might be carrying weapons; the rub was that9 in 10 of the record 684,000 stops the previous year were of blacks or Latinos.

"I think the feeling is that you have to look threatening or that they have to have some kind of [suspicious] idea about you," Omari McCleary, a Brooklyn native, toldme at that rally. "But I've gotten stopped and frisked and right outside of work in a business suit. So it's definitely a racial thing or racially charged in some way."

It would be two more weeks before Zimmerman was arrested and charged with Martin's murder; now, more than a year later, Zimmerman's trial is winding down. The police in Florida are preparing for possible violence if Zimmerman is acquitted; as the New York Times' Lizette Alvarez notes, it's a move that is itself loaded with racial connotations.

From the beginning, the Martin story has been the axis around which a bunch of larger conversations about race and politics have revolved.

Besides the talk about racial profiling and the criminalization of young black men, the case became the latest sticking point between gun-rights advocates and proponents of gun control.

The Koch brothers, the megarich conservative businessmen and betes noires of lefty types, had been advocates for the kind of stand-your-ground self-defense law that figured to be a major pillar of Zimmerman's defense. That enraged and energized liberal activists.

On the other side, President Obama's statement empathizing with Martin made the conservative blogosphere apoplectic; The Daily Caller published Martin's tweets and strongly suggested that he was a dangerous delinquent. Every new bit of evidence that became public was parsed by both sides — whether Zimmerman appeared injured in police station video on the night of the shooting; the neighbors' 911 calls — for vindication of their position and proof of the mendacity of the other side. This case was about justice and injustice, and Martin and Zimmerman were suddenly the avatars for disparate, if not incompatible, renderings of those ideas.

But criminal cases — and the Zimmerman trial, in particular — are lousy proxies for fights over big, messy social issues. Indeed, so many of the issues that come up in the discussions of this particular trial have been sidelined from the courtroom proceedings. The judge in the case has essentially banned the use of the term "racial profiling."

She allowed the prosecution to use it only in its opening statements against Zimmerman. No member of Sanford's police department, a principal target of so much early activist outrage for initially deciding not to charge Zimmerman, is on trial for anything.

And Zimmerman, of course, isn't a police officer; it's unlikely that a conviction would have any consequences for law enforcement agencies.

The Martin family has tried to narrow the focus to just the facts of the case, as well. "To this family, race is not a part of this process. And anybody who tries to inject race into it is wrong," oneof the family's lawyers said two weeks ago. "Let's be clear about that. ... This family does not want race as a part of this process and does not believe it should be a part of this process."

The conversations swirling around this case have been about history and justice and race, but the six jurors will be asked to decide the case much more narrowly: Zimmerman is charged with second-degree murder.

So the jury will have to determine whether Zimmerman shot Martin in self-defense or Zimmerman's actions stemmed from his pursuit of the young man with an intent to harm him.

Who initiated the confrontation? Who was heard pleading for help in the 911 audio that captured the fatal shooting?

The verdict will hinge less on any lofty sense of justice than it might on what instructions the judge gives to the jury. The jury may convict Zimmerman of second-degree murder outright. It may decide that Zimmerman probably intended to shoot Martin, but that the prosecution still didn't clear the bar for conviction, and acquit him. It may decide that the prosecution didn't prove that Zimmerman was guilty of homicide and still convict him of a lesser charge like manslaughter.

Or, after all of this, it may not be able to come to a decision, and the jury may simply be hung.

For a whole lot of people, each of these outcomes will be deeply unsatisfying, if not distressing.

But for all of the people who bring these different lenses to his trial, none of these outcomes are likely to resolve much of anything.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.

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