The Zimmerman case: A touch of insanity

The Washington PostJuly 23, 2013 

“No justice, no peace” chants the telegenic mob. In a civilized society, however, where the mob doesn’t rule, justice is defined by the verdict that follows a fair trial. It’s the best that humans can do.

And in the case of George Zimmerman, we have a verdict. It followed a trial every minute of which was seen by the world. Nothing secret, nothing hidden. Where in the trial was there racial bias? What evidence of the case being tilted toward the defendant because the victim was black? What sign of any racial animus in the jury?

Those undeniable realities have not prevented Benjamin Crump, attorney to the victim’s family, from placing Trayvon Martin in the tradition of Emmett Till and Medgar Evers.

This is a disgrace. Those were race crimes of the most savage and undeniable kind. To compare those to a shooting deemed by an impartial jury after a fair and fully open trial as a case of self-defense is to desecrate their memory and to trivialize centuries of real, brutal, bloody race hatred.

The injection of race into the story by the media, by irresponsible politicians and by the usual racial entrepreneurs has been poisonous. President Obama didn’t help when his first reaction to the death of Trayvon Martin was, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” thereby immediately making skin color a central issue.

Imprudent as was that remark, it is nonetheless understandable given the history of this country and the initial appearance of the incident. At that point, a racial motive was not an implausible assumption, although certainly an unhelpful one coming from the president of the United States — a president who had consistently reacted to other killings, such as the Fort Hood massacre of 13 soldiers by a Muslim gunman shouting “Allahu Akbar,” by immediately urging us not to jump to ethnic/religious conclusions.

But that remark about Martin came before the Zimmerman trial. Afterward, the president acted responsibly. “A jury has spoken,” he said, and then used the moment to reflect on other things, such as care for one’s neighbors and concern for one’s community, thus helping deracialize the case.

In doing so, Obama was following the overwhelming evidence. A concurrent FBI investigation, which involved interviewing more than 30 of Zimmerman’s acquaintances, found zero evidence of Zimmerman harboring racial animus. Nor did he even mention race when first describing Martin to the police dispatcher. (Race was elicited only by a subsequent direct question from the dispatcher.)

Now, however, there is major pressure on the Justice Department to pursue Zimmerman with some kind of federal prosecution. On what possible evidence for what possible crime? A hate crime? Who calls 911 before setting out on a hate crime? “This case has never been about race,” said Angela Corey, one of Zimmerman’s prosecutors. The jury concurred. Regarding the killing, said one juror, “All of us thought race did not play a role.”

While Attorney General Eric Holder told the NAACP he would continue to investigate a federal role, that could simply be his way of punting the question to a time when temperatures are lower. Moreover, he made a point of turning his NAACP address into an attack on Stand Your Ground laws, thereby deflecting attention to legislation, which is the proper role of government, and away from continued persecution of a defendant already acquitted, which is not the proper role of government.

Further federal prosecution of Zimmerman would fail, humiliatingly. Assuming Holder knows that, his focusing on Stand Your Ground would be a deft way to finesse the current frenzy and drain the issue of the race element.

If my favorable reading of Holder is correct, then the Zimmerman case will take its historical place as not crime but tragedy. Its unfolding was nearly theatrical: an encounter in the dark of two men, confused, agitated and fearful. This should never have happened and surely Zimmerman’s misjudgments contributed mightily, most grievously his ignoring the dispatcher’s advice not to follow Martin.

Tragedy — but without catharsis. No crime, no punishment. Under law, there’s a difference between misjudgment and murder (or manslaughter), which the prosecution never came close to proving. Zimmerman will nonetheless carry the taint, the mark, the notoriety of that misjudgment — of reckless zeal that led to the needless death of a young man — for the rest of his life.

Divine punishment? It’s not for us to judge. All we have is the human kind whose only standard in a civilized society is this: A jury has spoken.

Charles Krauthammer, a columnist for the Washington Post, may be reached at letters@charleskrauthammer.com.

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