Trayvon Martin Case: ‘Trial of the Century’?

As the trial starts, experts talk about its potential effect on how we see race and justice in America.

Trayvon Martin (family photo); George Zimmerman at a bond hearing (AFP/Getty Images)
Trayvon Martin (family photo); George Zimmerman at a bond hearing (AFP/Getty Images)

(The Root) — The Trayvon Martin case doesn’t involve a white-Bronco car chase, an NFL legend and a pretty blonde — just a black, unarmed teenage boy in a hoodie and a neighborhood-watch captain with a gun named George Zimmerman. But the second-degree-murder case against Zimmerman — who says he killed Trayvon in a gated community in Sanford, Fla., last February out of self-defense — has the potential to be just as meaningful as the O.J. Simpson trial when it comes to race and the justice system.

Charles Ogletree, director and founder of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice at Harvard Law School, told The Root that the “distinctive qualities” of the case — which centers around the issues of racial profiling, gun violence and self-defense laws — make it particularly relevant. “I will even go so far as to say that this will be the trial of the century that will say a lot about the court system of the 21st century,” he said.

Since Trayvon was shot to death on Feb. 26, 2012, advocates have rallied around his family and his cause — with support ranging from hoodie campaigns to gestures of solidarity on the House floor. For weeks, there was buzz about the nature of race in America and how violence against blacks — specifically young black males — must stop.

But not everyone feels the same way. Polls suggest just how much race has played a factor. In a USA Today-Gallup poll, 51 percent of African Americans felt that Zimmerman was guilty, while 20 percent of whites felt otherwise. It’s a case that has exposed the deep racial chasm that still exists in America. Will things get uglier before they get better?

Zimmerman’s family and legal team have pulled out all the stops to try to paint Trayvon as a malicious thug. From records of the teen’s text messages to pictures of Trayvon blowing smoke, the defense has tried to provide as much evidence as possible that Zimmerman shot Trayvon in self-defense.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Benjamin Crump — the attorney for the Martin family — said during a recent Miami prayer service that Zimmerman’s defense has made “a desperate attempt to try to play on people’s prejudices” by releasing cellphone pictures and texts from the teen. “It’s bad enough they had to lose their child,” he said. “It’s tragic [the Zimmerman defense] had to assassinate his character,” Crump said. At the same prayer service, Trayvon’s father, Tracy Martin, acknowledged that the family would “have to sit through a lot of negativity.”