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Martin Case: Politics Failed Us -- Not the Judicial System

Martin Case: Politics Failed Us -- Not the Judicial System

By Carl M. Cannon - July 15, 2013

“War,” 19th-century Prussian Gen. Carl von Clausewitz, observed, “is merely the continuation of politics by other means.”

The same is true of politically infused criminal cases, along with the spin, posturing, and political pressure brought to bear even after the jury renders its verdict -- all of which is already transpiring in the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal.

Initially, the parents of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed 17-year-old killed by Zimmerman, said they wanted local authorizes in Seminole County, Fla., to take their son’s death more seriously --they hoped his killer would face felony charges. The political pressure they generated succeeded in its aim: Florida’s governor appointed a special prosecutor with a reputation for toughness, and George Zimmerman was arrested, charged, and forced to stand trial. But when the result of that trial didn’t go their way, various elected officials who had cheered this prosecution brayed that the criminal justice system had failed the country.

“Miscarriage of justice,” tweeted Rep. Steve Cohen. “Zimmerman verdict inexplicable” added Rep. Hakeem Jeffries. These two Democratic congressmen, and many others, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, immediately clamored for the Justice Department to charge Zimmerman with a civil rights offense, namely a racially motivated hate crime.

There are two problems with this reaction, one of them specific to this sad case, and the other endemic to our tedious politics. Actually, it seems that the criminal justice system, with all its limitations, worked as designed to in this case -- and it’s our political system that is failing us.

Let’s start with the man who killed Martin last year on a rainy February night in central Florida. Even before the trial of George Zimmerman began, the case contained a series of surprises that culminated in a verdict that stunned so many. One surprise was the dearth of actual evidence that Zimmerman was motivated by ethnic animus of any kind, or that he even views the world through a racial lens. The trial began with prosecutor John Guy quoting Zimmerman, a cop-wannabe and armed neighborhood-watch busybody, telling a Sanford, Fla. police dispatcher , “'F***ing punks. These a**holes, they always get away.”

It was a shocking opening statement, and from the standpoint of those who wanted to see Zimmerman pay, it was promising. Yet, that statement was all the prosecution really had. The defendant never alluded to Martin’s race that night, and despite scouring his past for Paula Deen-like slips, the prosecution never produced evidence that Zimmerman ever saw black youths and thought “punks.”

Two racial epithets were uttered by one of the antagonists, but both of them came from Trayvon Martin, who variously called Zimmerman “a cracker” and a “n_____” while talking with his girlfriend on his cellphone.

This twist was foreshadowed by a pre-trial development that occurred as Americans were making up their minds about this case when NBC News obtained a tape of Zimmerman’s 911 call to the police the night he shot Martin.

“This guy looks like he’s up to no good -- he looks black,” Zimmerman told the dispatcher. That was NBC’s version, anyway. In other words, in the media’s telling, George Zimmerman was a man who saw the world through a racist prism.

Except that the unedited conversation went like this:

Zimmerman: “This guy looks like he’s up to no good. Or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around, looking about.”

Dispatcher: “OK, and this guy — is he black, white or Hispanic?”

Zimmerman: “He looks black.”

By the time NBC fessed up, America had polarized itself along racial and partisan lines in this shooting. As the Justice Department made noises that it was investigating the case, Gov. Rick Scott appointed a special prosecutor named Angela B. Corey.

Corey immediately gave Martin’s family hope that she viewed the teen’s death the way they did -- as a murder case. Corey disbanded a grand jury looking at the case, filed a one-sided affidavit with the court, threatened to sue a Harvard professor who criticized her for that affidavit, and charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder, a decision she announced at a press conference where she smiled repeatedly and incongruously.

As the trial testimony accumulated, it became clear Corey had over-reached. A second-degree murder conviction in Florida requires a finding beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant acted with an intent informed by “a depraved mind, hatred, malice, evil intent or ill will.”

This was an evidentiary burden the state didn’t come close to meeting, as prosecutors tacitly conceded when they pushed the judge to include jury instructions on the lesser charge of manslaughter. But by the time the trial had reached that phase, it didn’t matter. The lasting image in jurors’ minds was the scenario portrayed -- with corroboration by some of the evidence -- of Trayvon Martin sitting astride George Zimmerman and pounding away at him as the defendant groped for his pistol.

Did it really happen that way? Only Zimmerman knows for sure because no other living person witnessed the initial encounter that led to young Trayvon’s death. But it seems the justice system worked. A much-reviled defendant got his day in court, and the jurors went where the evidence led them: The defendant pleaded self-defense, and in the end, there wasn’t enough evidence to conclude otherwise.

This case ended up where it started, vindicating local authorities who were appalled by Zimmerman’s actions, but who didn’t believe they had enough evidence to charge him criminally. Once it was in the hands of a jury, however, anything could have happened. No, it wasn’t second-degree murder, but an unarmed teenager was dead at the hands of a panicky and menacing adult who had chased him in a car. Perhaps the jurors could reach a compromise. This is the manslaughter gambit that prosecutors trotted out belatedly.

As a young journalist, I covered courts in Virginia, Alabama, Georgia, and California, and I thought the jury might go for it. I actually hoped they would. But they didn’t, and in following the law, the evidence, and the judge’s instructions to the letter, the jury comprised of six women revealed the limitations of the courthouse for solving America’s social problems. They also acted in a way that showcased the integrity of the criminal justice system.

The political system, and the political press, has less to be proud of. “Hallelujah!” tweeted conservative provocateur Ann Coulter, which hardly seems an appropriate reaction to a case in which an unarmed teenager was slain.

But such attitudes were present in various newsrooms from the start. MSNBC, which never tired of the race angle, openly rooted for a conviction, while Fox News tended to depict Zimmerman’s trial as a politically correct persecution reminiscent of the notorious “show trials” in 1930s Russia.

Even the mainstream press chose sides. The normally neutral Associated Press revealed little tells, such as writing that Zimmerman’s mother “identifies herself as Hispanic.” (She was born in Peru -- what else would she be?) More revealing was an AP headline after the verdict reading, “Zimmerman Acquittal: Cries for Justice Continue.” More revealing still was this tweet from an Associated Press reporter: “So we can all kill teenagers now? Just checking.”

Elected Democrats tripped over themselves in denouncing the verdict, while simultaneously trying to sound responsible. Others called for calm while seeming to root for the opposite. “Defense attorney Mark O’Mara may incite a riot by his arrogance alone,” trumpeted Texas Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro.

Castro was evidently referring to O’Mara’s unseemly post-trial assertion that if George Zimmerman had been black, he wouldn’t have been charged with murder. Legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin termed that claim “absurd,” but O’Mara’s dubious assertion was trumped by an outlandish rejoinder from Trayvon Martin’s family attorney Benjamin Crump: “If you go to any courtroom in America on any given day,” he said, “you will see the number of African-American males being convicted on not much evidence at all.”

Really?

Toobin himself predicted much of this. Noting when charges were first filed against Zimmerman that Florida’s “sunshine laws” would mean cameras in the courtroom, he said, “This trial will be a trial by television.”

And television these days, like our political discourse, is dominated by shrieking ideologues impervious to nuance or facts or unexpected developments. It is an environment in which the losing side -- in an election, a debate, a criminal trial, whatever -- seeks to compensate by upping the shrillness factor.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, for example, issued a statement asserting that Trayvon Martin was indeed “racially profiled” -- who cares what a judge ruled? -- and by seeming to call on her union members to ignore that pesky constitutional guarantee of a trial by one’s peers. “The disposition of this case,” she said, “is the antithesis of what we teach our children in school.”

President Obama, fortunately, was more measured than the liberal wing of his party. Earlier, Obama was criticized for weighing in on this case. Trayvon Martin, he’d said, looked like a son of his might have looked. It’s problematic when a sitting U.S. president weighs in on a local crime that has yet to be adjudicated. Yet, Americans have come to expect White House reaction to the big news story of the day, and Obama responded, I thought, in a very human way: as a father.

This weekend, the president had perfect pitch. “We are a nation of laws and a jury has spoken,” he said in a statement. “I now ask every American to respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son.”

Amen. 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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