In the George Zimmerman trial we entered a realm in which racial stereotyping and paranoia were on display. In this place, perpetrators call themselves victims. Victims are labeled perpetrators. A man who commits an assault calls it self-defense. Immunity is given to crime. But this does not occur in the Twilight Zone.
The signpost up ahead says Sanford, Florida.
First, the imaginary threats. Zimmerman, in his interview with police three days after the killing, describes Trayvon Martin as a suspect. But Trayvon committed no crime.
Told to stay in the car, Zimmerman ignores the instruction from the police and pursues “the suspect.” He was responding to an imaginary threat. I note with interest Zimmerman was later found to have Restoril in his system. This drug is associated with hallucinations and paranoia. Could this drug have played a role in Zimmerman’s case?
Armed with a gun, this grown man followed Trayvon and he put Trayvon reasonably in fear. When he did so, this was an assault. From that point on, it was Trayvon, not Zimmerman, who had a right to “stand your ground” protection. For Zimmerman to flip the script here, for him to claim a “stand your ground” right was like the wolf putting on the sheep’s clothes.
For the media, the prosecutors and court to give credence to this was a perversion of the “stand your ground” law. The legislation eliminates the duty to retreat in the face of an actual objective threat. What it does not do is justify a confrontation in response to an imaginary threat. To give credence to Zimmerman’s claim of “stand your ground” here was a perversion of the concept.
Then there is the matter of stalking and then claiming self-defense. A man sees a woman walking down the street. He is on the opposite side going in the opposite direction. It is evening. She is walking fast. He crosses over and follows her.
She walks fast. He walks faster. She runs. He closes in. She turns on him and decides to defend herself. When he gets close enough, she somehow throws him on the ground, gets on top of him and tries to hit him with her umbrella. Fearing for his life, the stalker pulls out a gun and shoots the woman. When the police arrive, he says, “Oh, I thought I knew her. I followed her, she ran, and when I got close she tried to hit me for no reason. I was forced to defend myself.”
But the stalker has no right of self-defense in this situation. And it does not matter if the woman is wearing a hoodie. The law is you cannot create the conditions of your own defense. You cannot knowingly and flagrantly provoke a conflict and then, having provoked it, say, “You know, I was just defending myself.”
So Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense was a mockery of justice.
He is no different than the stalker in the above example who stalks his victim, catches up to her after she tries to flee and then masquerades as a victim of an unprovoked attack when she fights back.
Next is the blame the victim syndrome. I’m reminded of another trial, one in Money, Miss., in 1955. Emmett Till was visiting relatives and went to the grocery store. Reportedly, he wolf-whistled at the married owner of the store.
Mose Wright was an eyewitness to the abduction of his great nephew. He testified, at risk to himself, “Thar he!” pointing out the people who tortured and lynched Emmet Till.
The evidence was there. But the word of white men that they were innocent mattered more than eyewitness testimony. In that courtroom the child, Emmet Till, was the troublemaker. The white men, vigilantes, were just protecting the community, it was argued.
This was a perversion of justice. When Zimmerman’s attorney Mark O’Mara got up in the Sanford courtroom and showed a cartoon portraying Trayvon as the stalker and Zimmerman as the prey, it reminded me of that courtroom in Money, Miss. O’Mara’s argument, unanchored in the facts, was not an appeal based on the evidence. It appealed to racial fear about black men in hooded sweatshirts.
I’m reminded of a line from Nikki Giovanni, who asks, in a poem, “Ain’t they got no shame.”
Donald Jones is a professor of law in the University of Miami School of Law.