WHAT OTHERS SAY: In Zimmerman verdict, fear was enshrined in law

Tuesday, July 16, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the not-guilty verdict reached Saturday night in the trial of George Zimmerman for shooting Trayvon Martin was not the verdict itself, but a statement made by the special prosecutor in a news conference after the trial.

“This case has never been about race, nor has it never been about the right to bear arms, not in the sense of proving this as a criminal case,” said Angela B. Corey.

Allowing for the unintentional double negative in her statement, and granted that she’s a Republican who will have to face re-election back home in Jacksonville (though not until 2016), it could be she was right in the strict legal sense.

The issue of race was raised overtly only once during the three-week trial, and that by a prosecution witness who quoted Mr. Martin as having described Mr. Zimmerman as a “creepy-ass cracker” in a cellphone call moments before their fatal encounter.

The race factor

But can anyone think that race wasn’t a factor in Mr. Zimmerman’s decision to put Mr. Martin under surveillance in Sanford, Fla., on the night of Feb. 26, 2012?

That a 17-year-old black youth wearing a hoodie didn’t set off alarms with Mr. Zimmerman, a 29-year-old neighborhood watch captain and would-be cop? That his reference to “Fu--ing punks” and “a--holes” wasn’t racially charged?

Put it like this: Does anyone doubt that if Mr. Martin had been white, he wouldn’t be dead?

Can anyone doubt that but for Florida’s absurdly generous expansion of the phrase “right to bear arms,” Mr. Zimmerman would have been convicted?

The jury factor

Furthermore, does anyone doubt that a 12-member jury (Florida is one of the few states that use six jurors in noncapital felonies) would have come to a different conclusion?

Seminole County, Fla., is 82 percent white, but with a black victim, a black juror or two might have brought some different cultural experiences to the deliberations. The jury of five white women and one Hispanic woman could have used some help.

Yes, but it’s not what you believe that counts but what you can prove beyond a reasonable doubt, and that was too high a bar for Ms. Corey’s prosecutors.

There were no eyewitnesses to counter Mr. Zimmerman’s version of what happened that night in Sanford’s gated Twin Lakes subdivision. Forensic evidence was at least suggestive that Mr. Zimmerman was telling the truth about having been pounded in a fight and having shot upwards at his attacker.

This was no ordinary skinny 17-year-old armed with merely a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea, the defense said. This was an experienced street-fighter pounding on a slovenly, out-of-shape victim.

The fear factor

And here is the key: Florida’s 2005 “stand your ground” law places the burden of proof on prosecutors. If a guy says he was in fear of his life, then it’s up to prosecutors to prove he wasn’t.

A guy doesn’t have to avoid a confrontation, and if things go badly, he is free to use deadly force. Being governed by fear is enshrined in law.

The Florida law has NRA-approved language, very similar to language in Missouri law. Mr. Zimmerman had a concealed-carry permit for his Kel-Tec 9 mm semi-automatic (about $300 retail).

And even if he initiated the confrontation, he was free under Florida law to end it with deadly force — though how he got the gun out of its holster while allegedly being pummeled by Mr. Martin remains a matter of some dispute.

“What we want is responsible use when someone feels they have to use a gun to take a life,” Ms. Corey told the press conference. “They have to be responsible in their use and we believe that this case was all (along) about boundaries and that George Zimmerman exceeded those boundaries.”

The gun factor

Boundaries? Shooting an unarmed kid is legal? Who was this Trayvon Martin, the second coming of Bruce Lee? Not even in the Wild West were you allowed to shoot unarmed people.

Make no mistake: At its basic level, Florida v. Zimmerman was about race and it was about guns. It was about the color of Trayvon Martin’s skin. It was about the fact that someone of George Zimmerman’s temperament was allowed to carry a gun — and use it recklessly if he got nervous. He makes an unlikely Second Amendment hero.

America is deeply divided on racial issues. It is further deeply divided on the subject of guns. We ought to be able to come together on laws that say you can’t shoot unarmed people, but too many of us are governed by fear itself. That is the tragedy.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.

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