George Zimmerman trial: Sound legal verdict, poor judgment on society

July 16, 2013 

The tragic shooting death of Trayvon Martin and the trial of George Zimmerman never could have come to a just conclusion for the entire nation. Our political and racial divide is that great. The verdict maintains the rule of law but leaves the principle of justice in doubt.

The legal question in this case has been settled. The self-defense right and Florida's broad Stand Your Ground law have been upheld.

Admirably, Martin's parents requested that race not be brought up, and the judge presiding over the case kept that question out of courtroom proceedings. But the court of public opinion continues to judge the racial issue.

President Obama's perspective capsulizes this entire episode and is instructive: "The death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy.

"Not just for his family, or for any one community, but for America. I know this case has elicited strong passions. And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher.

"But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken. I now ask every American to respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son. And as we do, we should ask ourselves if we're doing all we can to widen the circle of compassion and understanding in our own communities.

"We should ask ourselves if we're doing all we can to stem the tide of gun violence that claims too many lives across this country on a daily basis. We should ask ourselves, as individuals and as a society, how we can prevent future tragedies like this.

"As citizens, that's a job for all of us. That's the way to honor Trayvon Martin."

That statement brings up questions that strike at the very heart of our souls -- uncomfortable questions that we fail to confront by denying the questions as ludicrous.

Do we fear people not like us, just because they are not like us?

Stand Your Ground became the legal focal point, but we're fooling ourselves about focusing on the law and ignoring the human element. Witness people's reactions across the nation. They're far more visceral than legalistic for the most part.

A member of the conservative black leadership network known as Project 21, born out of the 1992 Rodney King verdict riots, said this in defense of the law: "In this case, it felt as if our very country were on trial for racial prejudice.

"The not guilty verdict should make us reflect on what it means to give the benefit of the doubt before judging harshly and deciding one's actions are racially motivated."

Lisa Fritsch, a tea party activist and talk radio host, went on to state that Americans need to protect our youth from a culture of violence and a lifestyle that leads to trouble. Yes, indeed.

For many Americans, the legal perspective is paramount -- and there's no denying the validity of that position. In the Miami Herald report of the verdict in Sunday's Bradenton Herald, criminal defense attorney David Edelstein articulated what may have been jury thinking: "They believed he (Zimmerman) was simply responding with the force necessary to protect himself. They may also have concluded this was a tragic accident."

That may very well be true. We don't know because Zimmerman refused to take the stand in his defense and explain.

Beyond that, though, another statement casts this verdict in the broader societal terms that strike at the heart of this. The Rev. Michael McBride leads PICO's Lifelines to Healing Campaign, a multi-racial, multi-faith initiative that organizes local communities to stop neighborhood violence. He wrote:

"In the final analysis, it's not about the verdict, it's about our collective values. Are we, as a nation, willing to value young black life? Are we willing to amplify these values through our personal relationships, public policies, and justice systems?"

Are we? Moving forward, that should be the nation's focus.

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