As the father of a young man who is close to the same age, size and build as Trayvon Martin, I sympathize with his parents.
All they asked in the early days of what quickly became Zimmermania, was for George Zimmerman to be arrested so the killing of their son wouldn’t be shoved aside without a proper investigation.
“That won’t bring Trayvon back,” his mother Sybrina Fulton said before the arrest, “but at least that would give us reassurance that the justice system is working.”
Now that Zimmerman has been found not guilty, many are asking, did the justice system work? The answer is yes, it worked very well -- for the defendant, George Zimmerman.
That’s partly because Florida laws in close-call cases like this one give an edge to the shooters.
The big question in Zimmermania, as in the O.J. Simpson double homicide case that it brings to mind, is whether the prosecution proved its case “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
It turns out that under Florida law I can provoke you into a fight and, if things turn sour on me, I can legally kill you, as long as I “believe” I am in danger of “great bodily harm.”
After Zimmerman pleaded not guilty, it was up to the state to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that he either was lying about being afraid for his life or that his fear was not warranted.
To justify the use of deadly force, the jury’s instructions said, “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.”
No, Zimmerman did not use Florida’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” law as a defense. He didn’t have to. The jury instructions do it for him. They point out that if Zimmerman was attacked in any place 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 ... if he reasonably believed that it was necessary.”
In other words, it is not enough for the state to prove that Zimmerman behaved stupidly by getting out of his vehicle and following Martin after a police dispatcher told him, “We don’t need you to do that.”
Under Florida law, acting stupid in that way isn’t a crime. Zimmerman had no obligation to stop or retreat. After he got into his scuffle with Trayvon that conflicting witness testimony described, it was up to the state to prove Zimmerman had no reasonable fear for his life.
As in the Simpson case, those of us who were not in court will argue forever about whether race or racism was involved. But in court, the case against Zimmerman was not made beyond a reasonable doubt. He walks. I can live with that. We all should want to live in a country where suspects must be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
But I have a much harder time living with the injustice suffered by other gun crime defendants who are serving long prison terms without killing anyone.
For example, the Zimmerman case has brought new attention to Marissa Alexander, of Jacksonville, who is serving a 20-year sentence since last year for shooting into a wall to frighten off her abusive husband.
She believed she, too, was protected under the state’s Stand Your Ground Law. She was wrong.
And although many hold up the case of Alexander, who is black, as an example of racial injustice, a white man named Orville Lee Wollard from central Florida also has been serving a 20-year sentence since 2010 case for firing his gun in a inside his house to scare his daughter’s boyfriend.
Like Alexander, he rejected a plea deal that offered lesser punishment. The enemy in both cases was not racism but mandatory minimum sentencing. Florida isn’t alone. We can’t bring Trayvon back, but we can do something about such atrocious inequities in our justice system -- before the next Zimmermania.