Murder, hatred and George Zimmerman
By Marcus Flores
State prosecutors in Florida, evidently dissatisfied with convicting George Zimmerman of atonable recklessness, have recently announced that they may try Zimmerman for a hate crime because he “profiled and stalked” Trayvon Martin before killing him. Is this account genuine?
Imagining the scene of any crime is a formidable task for even the most distinguished detective. Re-creation relies on evidence and witness testimony. Physical evidence gathered following the February 26 encounter consisted of two components: Trayvon’s scraped knuckles and Zimmerman’s head wounds—which, in tandem, are consistent with a fist fight. Zimmerman cannot be vindicated on basis of this evidence alone; the wounds speak not to who started the fight but only who came up short during it.
Meanwhile, witness accounts of that tragic evening have flipped and flopped. One cannot be sure, now, whether or not there even was a chase. Obscured by nightfall and rain, one cannot be sure if it was Trayvon pummeling Zimmerman or the reverse. One cannot be sure if the anguished cries for help are those of Zimmerman or Trayvon. Everything is known except for what actually happened. And, given the unnecessarily immense gravity of the case, most jurors and witnesses are probably afflicted with understandable bouts of the “Am-I-sure-I-saw-what-I-saw?” syndrome.
Here’s a possible scenario. Zimmerman, perhaps feeling more like a cop than a neighborhood watch volunteer, comes across a black teen in an area said to have been recently burglarized by black teens. Disavowing both the 911 Operator and common sense, Zimmerman confronts the teen, who, innocent, rightly takes offense at his meddlesome follower. Tempers flare, fists fly. Then a muffled pistol report, and silence. Even if a distant camera caught the incident, no one could be sure of what words were exchanged to escalate the conflict.
The media, on the other hand, sought to introduce an element of the crime as injurious as it is ambiguous: that of race. Because Zimmerman likely surveyed Martin with foreknowledge of the recent burglaries, labeling him a racist is to take a very basic identifying factor and spin it off as a prejudice. NBC News bears a hefty share of culpability here given its either really biased or really dimwitted editing of the phone call between Zimmerman and the 911 operator. In the original cut, the dispatcher calmly asks, “Is he [Martin] black, white or Hispanic?” “He looks black,” replied Zimmerman. The widely released edit portrays Zimmerman as profiling Martin without prompt. Well done, NBC.
As is often the case with media blunders, the damage was done; Zimmerman was a racist before the details even solidified. It’s worth taking a look at the legal definition of a hate crime, which, according to the Matthew Shepherd Hate Crimes Prevention Act, is such if it is motivated “by the actual or perceived race” of a victim. One cannot be sure if Zimmerman followed Martin solely because of his race or because he was genuinely concerned with the previous burglaries. Given the legal basis of establishing intent “beyond all reasonable doubt” (my italics), there is room enough to believe that Zimmerman’s supposed antipathy toward a particular race is reasonably questionable. It is the difference in recklessly killing someone who happens to be black and willfully killing someone because they are black.
If there is any silver lining, the Zimmerman trial illustrates a potentially seminal social shift given its proximity to America’s youth. Teens, generally unconcerned with sociopolitical matters, have rallied to secure justice for Trayvon. However promising, these campaigns occasionally miss the mark. Public response has been proportional to a hypothetical crime wherein a menacing white fiend hunts and murders a black man for thrill—which actually happened in Jackson, Mississippi on June 26, 2011.
Early that morning, a drunken Deryl Dedmon jumped behind the wheel of a pickup with the stated intention of “fucking with some niggers,” found James Craig Anderson, and ground him to a bloody pulp. Anderson, an unsuspecting autoworker, was returning to his car in a hotel parking lot when Dedmon and his maniacal troupe of rednecks decided the man’s skin color warranted murder. Dedmon boasted to his cohorts of having “ran that nigger over.” Let me be ambiguous: this was a hate crime.
The reaction to Anderson’s death attracted a small gathering of some 500 clergymen and community members. It briefly made national headlines but was quickly forgotten. Here was a hate-murder, a Reconstruction era relic worthy of Faulkner. For his despicable act, Dedmon received a life sentence. Charged with a hate crime, Zimmerman could face a similar sentence or the death penalty. Despite the tragedy of two innocent black men losing their lives, one has to ask, are the two crimes at all comparable?