Zimmerman Trial: Race Verdict Already In

The outcome will tell us what six people think of a narrow issue, and nothing new about being black in America.

George Zimmerman (Pool/Getty Images)
George Zimmerman (Pool/Getty Images)

The legal reality: Even if Zimmerman was completely wrong in racially profiling Trayvon, that wouldn’t render a self-defense claim invalid, Woodson says, because Florida law lets an aggressor — even one with a despicable motivation — use the defense under certain circumstances. He adds that there’s really only one main question that will be before the jury: whether, at the moment Zimmerman pulled the trigger, he reasonably believed he needed to do so to protect himself from death or imminent bodily harm. It’s narrow, it’s specific and it doesn’t allow for the consideration of race.

How it feels: You can’t argue that you killed an unarmed teen in self-defense when you’re the adult, and you started it. If Zimmerman walks, it means there are different legal standards for black and white Americans. 

The legal reality: “Broadly speaking, the idea is that you’re only supposed to respond with the level of force necessary — even if you initiated a fight,” says Woodson. But again, under Florida’s self-defense statute, he explains, just because you started a confrontation (even for a wrongheaded, terrible reason), doesn’t mean you have to let the other person kill you. And you can use deadly force to stop them. That’s at odds with many people’s sense of fairness, but Woodson says he’s not aware of any indication that the law was written to allow white people to kill black people, as some have suggested. Nor does it have a racially charged reputation like the “Stand your ground” immunity that dominated early discussions about the defense but wasn’t ultimately sought by the Zimmerman’s team.

How it feels: The defense put Trayvon’s character on trial because he was black. If Zimmerman isn’t indicted, it will be because the attorneys unethically appealed to the racial stereotypes held by jurors.

The legal reality: “It’s surprising to me how much a lot of the bloggers and pundits have reacted to the defense’s attempt to defend their client,” says Woodson, explaining, “Zimmerman’s freedom rests on him being able to persuade the jury that he was being attacked when he pulled the trigger, and evidence that makes that more likely is very important to his case.” The defense team, which he says is bound by the rules governing character evidence when they discuss the slain teen’s history, has a legitimate interest in attempting establishing that Trayvon initiated the physical confrontation or got the best of Zimmerman, using whatever information they possibly can.

So, six people are going to decide whether Zimmerman violated specific laws and whether he meets the legal requirements for a specific defense. They won’t — and in fact, they can’t — issue a mandate on racial justice.  

Their decision can’t touch larger issues like racial profiling by law enforcement, unfair application of stop-and-frisk policies, structural inequality of any kind or the bigotry and ignorance that plague so many of our fellow citizens and make being black in this country harder and more dangerous. No one’s waiting for a verdict to be outraged about any of that. So, does the entire narrative surrounding the murder trial reflect well-known injustices? Absolutely. But will the jury’s decision on the narrow issue it’s asked to decide do the same? Not so much.

Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root‘s staff writer. Follow her on Twitter.

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