The Trayvon Martin case reminds me of so many other cases that I’ve seen of unequal treatment of the law in the criminal justice system. We are a society built on laws that are often unequally and unjustly applied depending on the color of one’s skin. Racism exists in the criminal justice system from an arrest of the accused, or in the case of Trayvon Martin, a non-arrest, to a final verdict. As a former prosecutor, I sought a fair trial and an impartial verdict based on the evidence in cases that I tried. But fairness and impartiality apparently means different things to different people.
Trayvon Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, was allowed to give a statement to the Sanford, FL police and then was free to leave based on his statement. If the tables were turned and Zimmerman, the shooter, was black and Trayvon Martin, the victim, was white, he would have been arrested so fast his head would have been spinning. The police will usually arrest a black suspect and ask questions later, under the same set of circumstances. It would have been up to a jury or a judge to determine if his defense under the Stand Your Ground Law or any other defense was valid, meriting his release.
Zimmerman, clothed in white privilege, was allowed to leave and go into hiding. According to his attorney, his whereabouts are known. But fleeing under some state laws and circumstances is a sign of guilt. Remember when O.J. Simpson went on his slow ride down the freeway; it was presumed by many that he was guilty based on this act. And yet in the case of Zimmerman, his act of hiding appears acceptable to many. I was always taught that if you are hiding, you have something to hide. And hiding often involves cover up, deceit or lying.
Zimmerman sees a black male teenager in a hoodie in his gated community and assumes suspicious activity. As for the evidence, Zimmerman is told by a 911 operator to refrain from following Trayvon Martin and meet police at a set location. On the 911 audio tape of Zimmerman, he is heard saying that Trayvon is running- presumably away from Zimmerman. After his 911 call, the next 911 calls by neighbors report hearing “help”, one gun shot and screaming. Under these set of facts, Zimmerman follows after Trayvon Martin, confronts him and shoots him instead of waiting for the police to come, as he was instructed. While all the facts may not be known, the audio tape is clear—just as clear as the video tape was in the Rodney King police beating case. And just like in the Rodney King case, the hearing and seeing what is in plain sight or hearing is in the eye or ear of the beholder, depending on their race.
Zimmerman saw Trayvon Martin as a dangerous and suspicious black male walking in a hoodie on the streets of his gated community. In the past, it was whistling, winking or looking allegedly inappropriately at a white woman that could get a black man killed by a white man. That’s how Emmitt Till met his death in 1955. In the mind of George Zimmerman, the scenario was the same—being a black male teenager in the wrong place at the wrong time was a crime. Trayvon Martin’s suspicious activity was being black.
For young black males like Trayvon Martin, walking on the streets of America is still a dangerous place to be. Trayvon Martin and all other blacks in hoodies or hoodless have a right to walk the streets in broad daylight and at night without being gunned down by a vigilante looking for trouble.
We can’t let Trayvon Martin’s killer get away with murder or else our laws become meaningless, depending on skin color. We need to stand our ground and demand justice for Trayvon Martin.
Debbie Hines is a lawyer, former prosecutor and legal /political commentator appearing in national and local media including CNN, the Michael Eric Dyson Show, XM Sirius radio, NBC , ABC and CBS -Washington, DC affiliates, NPR, the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, USA Today, Black Enterprise among others. She founded LegalSpeaks, a progressive blog on women and race in law and politics. She also writes for the Huffington Post.