July 13, 2013. It was my birthday and my husband and I were sitting in line waiting for the Hollywood Forever Cemetery gates to open. We were meeting friends for an outdoor screening of Scream. We checked our phones and saw the George Zimmerman verdict had come in, not guilty. Around the same time, everyone else must have done the same thing, because a hushed murmur traveled through the crowd. There was a palpable uneasiness in the air. A young unarmed boy was shot dead by an armed member of a neighborhood watch. Nothing about that seemed right. But the George Zimmerman verdict isn’t what was wrong.
The following passage is part of the instructions that were given to the jury prior to deliberation. The bold text was added for emphasis:
JUSTIFIABLE USE OF DEADLY FORCE
An issue in this case is whether George Zimmerman acted in self-defense. It is a defense to the crime of Second Degree Murder, and the lesser included offense of Manslaughter, if the death of Trayvon Martin resulted from the justifiable use of deadly force.
“Deadly force” means force likely to cause death or great bodily harm.
A person is justified in using deadly force if he reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself. In deciding whether George Zimmerman was justified in the use of deadly force, you must judge him by the circumstances by which he was surrounded at the time the force was used. The danger facing George Zimmerman need not have been actual; however, to justify the use of deadly force, the appearance of danger must have been so real that a reasonably cautious and prudent person under the same circumstances would have believed that the danger could be avoided only through the use of that force. Based upon appearances, George Zimmerman must have actually believed that the danger was real.
If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in anyplace where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.
In considering the issue of self-defense, you may take into account the relative physical abilities and capacities of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. If in your consideration of the issue of self-defense you have a reasonable doubt on the question of whether George Zimmerman was justified in the use of deadly force, you should find George Zimmerman not guilty.
After reading the passage, it’s not surprising that George Zimmerman was found not guilty. Though, admittedly, I did not watch the entire trial, it seems to me that the verdict was most likely a just verdict under Florida law. But even if justice was served for George Zimmerman, that doesn’t mean that justice was served for Trayvon Martin. There is still something very unjust about the manner in which he died. And I think that fear is the main reason for this.
For me, this was the most important part of the jury instructions:
The danger facing George Zimmerman need not have been actual; however, to justify the use of deadly force, the appearance of danger must have been so real that a reasonably cautious and prudent person under the same circumstances would have believed that the danger could be avoided only through the use of that force.
And this is the part where race comes into play. It’s not hard to believe that George Zimmerman feared for his life during a confrontation with a young black man in a sweatshirt. Because in our society, we are conditioned to believe that black men, in particular, are dangerous and commit more crimes than other groups of people. And so, we fear them. It’s the reason why it’s not unheard of for police to shoot an unarmed black man after mistakenly assuming they have a gun. Even though there is extensive training in order to avoid these types of events, in stressful situations this mistake happens more than it should. But it is virtually unheard of for police to shoot an unarmed white man. We believe that black people are more dangerous. If police can make this mistake time and time again even after extensive training, it was only a matter of time before an armed member of a neighborhood watch did the same. Which raises another issue of whether or not we should arm every day people under these circumstances. But that’s another conversation for another day. The bottom line is that race is still an issue in this country. And justice will be served for Trayvon Martin only when we stop fearing black men more than other members of our society.