In the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal for the death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old unarmed black man, the Anti-Defamation League released a statement calling into question both the proliferation of gun permits as well as issues of race:
“We have great faith in America’s jury system and do not question the verdict in the Zimmerman case,” wrote the ADL’s national chair, Barry Curtiss-Lusher, and its national director Abraham H. Foxman. “However, this case raises serious questions about the wisdom of stand-your-ground laws and the easy access to concealed weapons permits in states like Florida, where more than one million permits have been issued since 1987 when the state’s concealed weapons law went into effect. Had neither been in place, this tragedy may never have occurred.
“There are serious, unresolved issues of race in our country,” the statement continued, “and this trial underscored the need to explore these issues more fully. Hopefully, the debate concerning the justice of the verdict in the Zimmerman case will inspire a continued much-needed discussion about the lingering impact of racism in society.”
Martin was killed on Feb. 26, 2012, in Florida, during a struggle with Zimmerman. Zimmerman, who was a neighborhood watch volunteer, became suspicious of Martin and called the police, who told him to stay in his car. Nonetheless, Zimmerman exited his car and followed Martin. A struggle ensued between the two men, culminating with Zimmerman shooting and killing Martin.
Like the ADL, Rabbi Ronald Symons, director of the Tikkun Olam Center for Jewish Social Justice at Temple Sinai, said he will not “second guess the jury,” but he does question what he sees as issues of racism and senseless gun violence in the Zimmerman case.
“I’m concerned by the precedent of a neighborhood watch being armed,” he said. “Someone is dead who didn’t need to die. We need to focus as a community on gun violence.”
For Symons, the Torah compels Jews to promote gun control.
“The Torah mandates, ‘You should not stand idle while your neighbor bleeds,’ ” he said.
Another verse from the Torah, “You shouldn’t put a stumbling block in front of the blind,” also mandates tougher gun laws, according to Symons.
“The use of guns is a stumbling block for those who don’t know how to use them responsibly,” he said.
The Zimmerman verdict also highlighted the persistent problems of racism in contemporary society, Symons said.
“I believe this is simply a reflection that we’re not as far as I would like us to be on issues of equality,” he said. “I wonder if the assailant was black and the victim was white if the verdict would have been the same.”
But from a legal perspective, the acquittal of Zimmerman was no surprise, according to Stanley Greenfield, a former assistant United States attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, who now has a private practice that includes criminal law.
“There were elements in this case that justifiably raised the kinds of issues that could have justified the verdict reached by the jury,” Greenfield said. “Once it’s before them, if they apply the principles the judge instructs them to, it is certainly understandable that the jury would reach the verdict it did. There was potential to find reasonable doubt for anyone listening to [the evidence].”
While Zimmerman may have created a situation where he put his own life in peril, he still may be entitled to assert self-defense, Greenfield said.
“There are two stages to it,” Greenfield said. “The prosecutor argued in his closing that it was Zimmerman who put himself in the position he was in by getting out of his car and by ignoring the instructions of the police. He provoked the situation. But whatever he provoked, he shouldn’t have been threatened with being killed. He still has the right to respond as a matter of self-defense.”
The nuances in this case were complicated, Greenfield said, and could easily lead a jury to find reasonable doubt that Zimmerman was guilty of either second-degree murder or manslaughter.
While Greenfield said he had “no doubt” that Zimmerman “profiled” Martin when he got out of his car and followed him, he does not believe the jury verdict was motivated by racism.
“This is not a Rodney King case or an O.J. Simpson case where the evidence was compelling and visual and then they get acquitted,” he said. “That was a kind of racist thing.”
A question could be raised, however, about the wisdom of a municipal law that permits people such as Zimmerman to serve “as nondeputized types to act as police types,” Greenfield said. “This should be regulated in some way.”
Though the Justice Department announced after the verdict that it would consider bringing federal charges against Zimmerman, it may have difficulty in meeting the burden required for a second trial, according to Harry Litman, a former United States attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, who also worked on the re-prosecution of the Rodney King case.
The Department of Justice cannot re-prosecute a matter just because it “disagrees with the verdict,” Litman told the Chronicle. “The usual presumption is you don’t disturb it.”
In order to prosecute the matter again at the federal level, there would have to be “some fundamental failure of process,” Litman said, or a matter of federal interest.
“It’s a very high hurdle to clear, and in most cases, the Department of Justice will not bring a second prosecution,” he said.
In the meantime, many members of the local African-American community are grieving.
“I couldn’t quite understand,” said Rev. Glenn Grayson of the Wesley Center AME Zion Church in the Hill District, whose 18-year-old son, Jeron, was gunned down and killed at a party in 2010. “He [Zimmerman] was instructed to not get out of his car. He almost broke the law by not following the law. Self-defense is a thin line. A young man at 17 is no longer here. He will never get married, he will never have children, and he will never fulfill his purpose.”
For Grayson, Martin became a symbol of the tragedy of the proliferation of gun violence.
“Trayvon became for me black and white, rich and poor, a poster child that guns kill, that guns take lives,” he said. “You can’t replace a life. The devastation on families can’t be measured. You can’t wrap yourself around it.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)