Sunday, July 14, 2013


     I've watched very little of the coverage of the George Zimmerman trial, because I saw no point in playing the outcome-prediction game. But now that the verdict is in, I do have two things to say.
     1. Speaking as a criminal defense attorney, I have to admit that this verdict was a result of the jury system working correctly. Under the horrendous Florida "Stand Your Ground" law, the jury was probably correct in its conclusion that the State had failed to prove its case against Zimmerman beyond a reasonable doubt. The fault was not with the jury, but with the law itself.
     I haven't done a nationwide survey of each state's self-defense statute, but I know New Jersey's. Here, if confronted anywhere but in your own home, you have a duty to retreat.  If you can do so in complete safety, but choose not to, then you cannot assert a claim of self-defense.  In other words: you cannot go looking for trouble, and then claim self-defense when things don't go your way.
     By contrast, the Florida law permitted what George Zimmerman did.  It permitted a racist thug to stalk, then provoke, then shoot to death when he reacted to the provocation, an unarmed 17-year-old boy who had gone out to buy himself a snack.  That law, from the moment it was enacted, had been a Trayvon Martin case waiting to happen.  That law must be changed.
     2. Post-racial society, my ass.  I have a 17-year old daughter.  I have many reasons to fear for her safety, and those reasons center on the fact that she's a skinny, naïve, physically vulnerable little thing.  But she's white.  I don't have to fear her being stopped by the police for Driving While Black.  I don't have to fear her being racially stereotyped by any future employers.  And I don't have to worry that a self-appointed vigilante will assume she's dangerous if she wanders into his neighborhood.
     Mothers everywhere tell their sons, "Stay out of trouble."  But when black mothers say it, it means something different than when white mothers do.  It means not only: don't do anything wrong, but also: keep a low profile.  Be ridiculously polite to strangers.  Don't go anywhere you won't be welcome.  Don't take risks.  I need for you to come back home.
     I'll never forget what my friend Vernon, a black lawyer, told me many years ago.  He said that if he's ever walking down a street, and there aren't a lot of people around, and he sees a white woman walking in his direction, he'll cross to the other side of the street.  Why take chances?  Why risk a baseless accusation, or even a look of terror directed at him?  Easier to walk away.
     Vernon learned that lesson as an adult, after many years of who-knows-what kinds of incidents.  Trayvon Martin will never have the chance to learn that lesson, because he will never be an adult.  Being a hotheaded 17-year-old can kill you - but that can often depend on the color of your skin.
     I am proud to be an American.  I really am.  But we need to do so much better.

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