Trayvon Martin was murdered. George Zimmerman murdered him. The jury may or may not see it that way; juries get a narrow and complicated view of things, and sometimes they get things wrong. But outside the jury box, there's no excuse.
If you want to get into a technical argument that it's only murder if it's "unlawful," and that if this trial by jury fails to produce a conviction, then the killing is not unlawful and therefore is not murder—well, presumably you also would argue that O.J. Simpson did not murder his wife. But why are you trying to make the argument at all? Why do you want to believe that an armed man shooting and killing an unarmed 17-year-old boy is lawful? What makes you think this way?
Some people think this way because they are pure, conscious racists. They hate and fear black people, and they know that they hate and fear black people, and so they are glad that a 17-year-old black person was killed in this situation. They may reject the actual term "racism," but they are remarkably open about the fact that they believe that black people are inherently dangerous and criminal, and that a black teenager is going to be a dangerous predator, and that at worst George Zimmerman merely activated Trayvon Martin's latent predatory nature.
There are quite a lot of these racists, the simple kind. One particularly frothing one has sent us at least three different emails with a photo of what he claims is the real Trayvon Martin. It's a photograph of the rapper Game, who is almost twice Martin's age, with a beard and facial tattoos. We have pointed this out, and the emails keep coming. The message is that the liberal media have lied to the public, showing photos of a baby-faced Martin when he was secretly a brawny, scowling thug. Now it's a matter of record what Martin really did look like on the night he died. (But someone who did look like Game would also not have forfeited his own right not to be shot dead.)
These people are horrible and repugnant and backwards. If you subtract the part about armed vigilantism, though, their philosophy that all young black men should be dealt with as criminals is the operating policy of the mayor and police commissioner of New York City. And that same racism infects the more respectable—and more disturbing—argument about why George Zimmerman ought to go free: that, sadly, we just can't really know what happened that night. The case is too murky and confusing. Upsetting though Trayvon Martin's death may have been, there's not enough evidence to overcome the presumption of innocence. Under our system of justice, we have to accept it as a terrible mistake.
Behind these preemptive apologetics is the idea that this case is somehow unusually tricky, that it falls in some blind spot of criminal law. It's not, and it doesn't. One person, armed with a gun, got in a fight with another person and shot that person dead. This is not a difficult scenario. It's second-degree murder.
What is reasonably in doubt? Other criminal defendants argue that the police have the wrong guy, that they weren't at the scene of the crime, that they didn't have a weapon, that they didn't do the killing. George Zimmerman was there. He brought a gun, which belonged to him. George Zimmerman used George Zimmerman's gun to shoot Trayvon Martin dead. There is not a shred of dispute about these facts.
So we get a self-defense case, because self-defense is what a killer claims when no other claim can possibly work. George Zimmerman shot an unarmed teenager, who had been minding his own business, because he had no other choice. According to whom? To George Zimmerman. Stripped to the basics, here's Zimmerman's defense: Nuh-uh.
Specifically, according to Zimmerman, here is what happened: Trayvon Martin attacked him, without provocation. Martin overpowered him. Martin began beating him, with the intent to kill him, and was on his way to succeeding.
No one but Zimmerman says Martin was the aggressor. No one but Zimmerman says Zimmerman was hopelessly losing the fight. No one but Zimmerman says that, of the two of them—the adult with a lethal weapon and the minor with a package of candy—Martin was the one who was too dangerous to live.
The only person who could directly dispute this story, point by point, was left dead on the grass that night. Zimmerman puts movie-villain dialogue in Martin's mouth. Zimmerman describes the one-sided savagery of the beating. Trayvon Martin isn't around to supply his own point of view.
Why should we believe Zimmerman about any of this? Or—more to the point—all of it, because without every part of his story, his defense collapses. He pursued Martin. He shot Martin. According to him, in between those events, the teenage boy turned into a werewolf, an unstoppable savage would-be killer, and the armed neighborhood watchman became his helpless victim. If it didn't happen exactly that way, Zimmerman has no defense.
High-profile cases have a way of passing backwards through a telescope, squeezing down to their tiniest point. Rodney King was beaten to a pulp by a gang of cops, and the Rodney King brutality trial turned into a question of whether this or that particular sequence of video frames showed him being unambiguously beaten to a pulp. O.J. Simpson slashed two people to death, and the trial pivoted on whether he could smoothly slide a blood-stiffened glove on over a latex glove.
What's the evidence here? Zimmerman had a bloody nose and cuts and scrapes on the back of his head. Nothing remotely close to a life-threatening injury. There was none of his DNA on the hands of the teenager who was supposedly beating him to death. Zimmerman's own account of events kept changing; the physical evidence—the position of Martin's hands, for instance—directly contradicts some of it.
But yes, Trayvon Martin fought with him. Imagine that—imagine this shaved-headed yutz, this mook, this MMA hobbyist with a flashlight and a gun, coming after you in the dark. Why would or couldn't Trayvon Martin fight for his own life?
This is what the real dispute is: do you believe that a 17-year-old black person counts the same as any other human being? The local cops did not, which is why the case turned into a national scandal to begin with. George Zimmerman did not. Trayvon Martin was walking along, heading home from the store, and that was not enough.
Turn the case around: a black teenager goes out carrying a gun, gets in a fight with a Neighborhood Watch volunteer, and shoots him, claiming self-defense. We would not even be discussing the case. The cops would have arrested and charged him. He would already be in prison. Picture anyone else lying dead on the grass—a middle-aged jogger, an elementary-school teacher, yourself. Yes, you. Now you're dead, for no reason at all, and the experts are wringing their hands about how the law can't do a thing about it. If that's how it is, there is no law.
[Image by Jim Cooke, photo via Getty]