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The Trayvon Martin Case

A Country’s Spiritual Wound

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.


“All of us thought that race did not play a role.”
- “Juror B37,” trial of George Zimmerman

On the night of August 9, 2006 in Suffolk County, NY, Aaron White, age 19, in a state of panic aroused his father John from a deep sleep. Aaron shouted that he was being chased by a group of kids and feared for his life. They had accused Aaron, who is black, of threatening to rape a white girl and were coming to get him. They followed him right up to his house, when John White took a handgun and confronted them. During the confrontation the gun went off (White maintains it was by accident) and the group’s ringleader was killed.

Members of the group of white teens denied using any racial slurs, but such language was clearly heard on a tape of a 911 call made during the incident.

John White expressed deep remorse for the death of the young white man, and said he was only trying to protect his son. Nevertheless he was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to a prison term of 5 to 15 years.

On December 6, 2005 in Cobb County, Georgia John McNeil, a black businessman, received an anxious call from his teenage son alerting him to the presence of an intruder in their back yard who was threatening him. The intruder was Brian Epp, white, a hired contractor with whom McNeil had previously done business. McNeil immediately called 911, then returned home. He found Brian Epp on his property, holding his son at knifepoint. McNeil fired a warning shot, but instead of retreating, Epp rushed towards him. McNeil then shot Epp and killed him.

Even though Georgia has a “castle doctrine,” a law permitting the use of deadly force to protect one’s own property, John McNeil was convicted of murder and given a life sentence. In 2008 the Georgia Supreme Court denied his appeal. However, last February, after having served six years, McNeil was allowed to plea to manslaughter and released for time served. He still has a felony on his record.

Finally, in the state of Florida, fifty miles from where Trayvon Martin was killed, Marissa Alexander, a black woman, went for a gun after her husband, suspecting their newborn baby was not his, flew at her in a jealous rage. The marriage was troubled and there had been incidents of violence before, including one occasion when her husband shoved her into a bathtub causing head injuries that put her in the hospital. Alexander had an order of protection against him, which he violated. So she pulled out her gun and fired what she claimed was a warning shot to scare him off, because she was afraid he was coming to beat her up again or worse. No one was hit, no one was hurt; yet Alexander was convicted of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and sentenced to 20 years.

The prosecution insisted that Alexander fired out of anger, not fear, so was not entitled to invoke self-defense. Yet fear and anger can certainly coexist and it is noteworthy that George Zimmerman, whose immediate state of mind was also in doubt, got the benefit of that doubt, while Marissa Alexander did not. The irony is compounded when one considers that Alexander suffered violence from her husband on a number of occasions and so might well have had reason to fear him, whereas Zimmerman had no previous contact with Trayvon Martin. Alexander’s shot missed, Zimmerman’s did not, yet Zimmerman is a free man while Alexander faces a very lengthy sentence.

The cause of this discrepancy may - and no doubt will - be debated. Where does the fault lie? With the Zimmerman jury? With the prosecution? With the odd Florida laws that exonerate someone who initiates a confrontation and kills an innocent person? With all of the above?

Supposedly the Florida self-defense laws are intended to protect good people. Supposedly the jury was simply carrying out those laws. Supposedly the prosecution did its best (although that is questionable). Nevertheless, the result is that a would-be cop whose reckless actions led to an innocent man’s death is back on the street with no reason not to do it again. Zimmerman pursued Martin even after police told him to stand down; he initiated the confrontation, and Martin (who may very well have been defending himself) is dead. Yet Zimmerman is not held responsible for any of it - and somehow we are to believe that race played no part in that outcome.

And while John White expressed deep remorse for the tragedy in which he was involved, Zimmerman found it acceptable to say, on the Sean Hannity show, “I feel that it was all God’s plan” and that he would not “second-guess” it.

These events all have implications for what we as a society find acceptable. Trayvon Martin's killing and its aftermath, including the incident, the law, the trial, and the verdict, send a chilling dual message:

  1. In Florida, as in other states with similar laws and cultures, you can carry a gun, start a confrontation, kill someone, and be exonerated - as long as you claim self-defense in the confrontation that you started. It makes no difference that you set in motion the chain of events resulting in the loss of an innocent life, and that authorities warned you to stop.

  2. It is also much easier to pull that off if you are white and the other person isn’t.

For those who still deny that race played a part in the Zimmerman trial, it is worth noting the testimony of one defense witness who appeared at the very end of it. Olivia Bertalan was a neighbor of George Zimmerman’s. Here is her testimony:

[Defense Attorney] O'MARA: OK. Going back, then, to when you still lived at retreat view circle, did an event happen at your residence where a crime was committed?

BERTALAN: Yes.

O'MARA: Could you explain to the jury what happened with that?

BERTALAN: I was home on a Wednesday with my son. He was, I think, 9 months at the time and I heard someone ring my doorbell repeatedly. So I went to check upstairs because I didn't have a peephole. And I saw two young African-American guys ring my doorbell repeatedly and they kept on looking up at the window.

I called my mom because I didn't know what to do. They left. Then after a while, I went back upstairs to check one more time and they were walking in front of my house. One came towards my house and I called - I was on the phone with my mom at the time. I started crying. I called the police. They broke into my house.

I heard some bangs downstairs. The dispatcher told me to grab any weapon I had because I had my son in my arms. He had woken up and just prepared to use it if I had to. The guy was it - I was locked in my son's bedroom.

He was shaking the doorknob trying to get in. I was sitting there with a pair of rusty scissors and my son in one arm and the police came and they ended up leaving.

O'MARA: Do you recall approximately when this happened?

BERTALAN: August 3rd of 2011.

O'MARA: And did you then take a place of refuge or hiding while this was occurring?

BERTALAN: Yes, I did.

O'MARA: Where did you go to hide?

BERTALAN: My son's upstairs bedroom.

O'MARA: In the closet?

BERTALAN: I wasn't in the closet. I was in the far corner because the closet was closer to the door. She said to get away -- as far away from the door as possible.

O'MARA: Did you have your son with you during that time?

BERTALAN: Yes, I did.

O'MARA: When -- did the people who were downstairs at some point, did they leave the house?

BERTALAN: Yes. I guess they escaped before the cops got there.

O'MARA: Did they take any items with them?

BERTALAN: Yes, they did.

O'MARA: What did they take?

BERTALAN: My camera, our laptop. They tried to get our TV. It was unhooked. But he had it hooked up to our computer so they couldn't get it off. I think there was something else. I can't remember what it was, definitely our camera and my laptop.

O'MARA: At some point, then, one of those people -- at least one of those people were arrested and found and arrested and charged with that crime?

BERTALAN: Yes.

O'MARA: And do you know what happened? Do you know the person's name?

BERTALAN: His name was Emanuel Burgess.

O'MARA: And is that the reason why you moved from that area?

BERTALAN: Yes.

O'MARA: Nothing further, your honor.

That was Bertalan’s complete testimony before cross and redirect. It had nothing to do with Trayvon Martin’s killing. Only later, during cross-examination, was George Zimmerman’s name even mentioned. So what was the purpose of calling Bertalan to the stand? That’s not hard to figure out. “Two young African-American guys” invaded her home and terrorized her family. Therefore it is reasonable to suspect any young black man of being up to no good, and reasonable for George Zimmerman to profile and pursue Trayvon Martin even though Trayvon Martin threatened no one and violated no law. If any of the jurors were in fact motivated by racial prejudice, Bertalan’s testimony was designed to relieve them of any guilt or misgivings. Otherwise it was totally irrelevant. Bertalan had no information about the incident at hand, and the prosecution’s failure to move to strike her testimony is simply unbelievable.

The defense’s case was based at least in part on the justification of racial fears - with the added implication that justifying the fear also justifies acting on that fear even if the result is the loss of an innocent life.

The lax attitude toward gun ownership in many parts of the country encourages vigilantism and makes acting on these fears even more destructive. “Guns don’t kill people”: that toxic bromide is scant comfort to the Martin family. This country’s gun culture can only make similar incidents more likely in the future, especially when coupled with laws like Florida’s that give advantages to the gun user. The belief that everyone has a right to carry a gun anywhere they want, combined with laws that make self-defense so easy to claim, create a climate in which no one is safe, especially if color is involved. Yet this is where the NRA wants to lead this country, even pushing for repeal or court cancellation of strong gun control measures in those states that do choose to follow a different path.

Is this the kind of society we want? In one of the greatest ironies of this case, George Zimmerman’s brother Robert, expressing fear for George’s safety, said on the Piers Morgan program: “There are factions, there are groups, there are people that would want to take the law into their own hands as they perceive it, or be vigilantes in some sense.” Huh? How did Robert miss the obvious, that his brother George was precisely one of those people?

State Attorney Angela Corey, who also prosecuted the Marissa Alexander case, insisted: “This [Zimmerman] case has never been about race.” The inability to see race in a case where race was used as a weapon by the winning side is just one more symptom of the unhealed racial wound in this country. It tells us that even while some people point with pride (or regret) to our having elected a black president, racial division, prejudice, and distrust still motivate us more than we are comfortable believing.

Sources:

Alvarez, Lizette and Cara Buckley. “Zimmerman Is Acquitted in Trayvon Martin Killing.” nytimes.com, July 13, 2013.

Bloom, Lisa. “Zimmerman Prosecutors Duck the Race Issue.” nytimes.com, July 15, 2013.

Brown, Stephen R. “Black Womanís Failed ‘Stand Your Ground’ Claim Raises Allegations of Racial Double Standard.” nydailynews.com, July 15, 2013.

CNN Transcripts. “George Zimmerman Trial; Dennis Root, Olivia Bertalan Testify.” cnn.com, July 10, 2013.

Flatow, Nicole. “How a Black Businessman Was Sentenced to Life in Prison for a Likely Self-Defense Killing.” thinkprogress.org, September 24, 2012.

Kenber, Billy. “Marissa Alexander Case in Spotlight After Zimmerman Trial.” washingtonpost.com, July 15, 2013.

Kilgannon, Corey. “Man Convicted for Shooting Teenager.” nytimes.com, December 23, 2007.

Sloane, Amanda. “Who is Marissa Alexander?.” hlntv.com, July 18, 2013.

Stanton, Kate. “Robert Zimmerman Jr.: Zimmerman's Brother Says George Is Worried About ‘Vigilantes’.” upi.com, July 14, 2013.

Tenety, Elizabeth. “George Zimmerman on Trayvon Martin Shooting: ĎAll Godís Planí.” washingtonpost.com, July 19, 2013.

Vitello, Paul. “Questions of Race and Intent Haunt a Long Island Shooting.” nytimes.com, September 30, 2006.

July 2013