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Martin-Zimmerman case one for the books

Jul. 23, 2013 @ 07:02 AM

Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman  now are two names etched firmly into the panoply of “celebrated” American courtroom tiffs. Books will be written about this case. Legal pundits will analyze every scintilla of evidence from the scene in Sanford, Fla., and weigh the character and behavior of both main characters in this tragic story that left Martin, 17, dead of a gunshot wound to the chest and Zimmerman, 30, hiding out from senders of death threats.

Like many U.S. consumers of headline news, I followed the ups and downs of this case closely for weeks, from the earliest reports of the shooting to the verdict of “not guilty” by the six-woman Florida jury.

Much of the country is split. Many  favor vindicating Martin, the African-American teenager who was suspected of being a housebreaker by neighborhood watch captain Zimmerman just for walking through the area with Skittles and tea. A majority, from polls I’ve seen, side with Zimmerman, a Latino, who ended up in an altercation with Martin on Feb. 16, 2012, and had his head banged on the concrete walk but “stood his ground” by firing a fatal bullet into Martin’s chest.

Indeed, the not-guilty verdict meant Zimmerman was acquitted on grounds of justifiable self-defense. Prosecutors could not even sell a manslaughter conviction.

For me it’s a classic case of not “either/or” but “both/and.” 

Almost no one involved in this case, in my book, gets off blame free. Not Martin, not Zimmerman, not the local police, not the prosecutors and not the national media.

Only the lead defense attorney, Mark O’Mara, deserves a passing score, and I’d grade his performance A-minus. O’Mara handled the case brilliantly, keeping Zimmerman off the stand and turning many of the prosecution’s witnesses into assets for the defense.

Martin, for his part, apparently doubled back on the pursuing Zimmerman and threw the first punch, then got the better of him in the fight until a bullet ended his life.

Zimmerman disobeyed the counsel of the 911 operator who told him not to continue following Martin. He also then declined to identify himself as part of the neighborhood watch and treated Martin, guilty of nothing more than “walking while black,” as a burglary suspect or prowler. 

At close range Zimmerman also had the option of putting a slug into Martin’s arm or leg instead of in the center of his chest. And, finally, having shot the teenager dead, Zimmerman exhibited almost no remorse, either on the scene or during the lead-up to the trial and the trial itself.

The prosecution team, headed by Asst. State’s Atty. Bernie de la Rionda, got off to a bad start by overcharging the case. It seemed as if they succumbed to pressure from national civil rights groups to seek an indictment on second-degree murder charges, rather than on the much more winnable charge of voluntary manslaughter.

They also, for a time, kept back exculpatory evidence. And they never managed to use their witnesses to present a strong case for a conviction.

Police, in the first instance, declined even to arrest Zimmerman, though they took him in for questioning. He wasn’t arrested and indicted for second-degree murder until 45 days after the killing.

There were also numerous complaints about sloppy evidence gathering and inadequate interviewing of area residents. 

As to the national media, too many commentators hyped the shooting of Martin as racially motivated, despite the fact that Zimmerman had been mentoring two black teens. On the other hand, Zimmerman had a history of phoning in complaints about young African-American males he spied in his neighborhood and referring to them as “young punks.” 

Justice done or justice denied? You tell me. Personally, I favored a conviction on voluntary manslaughter. What’s your take?

John Patrick Grace covered race riots on Chicago’s West Side in his early reporting days for The Associated Press, as well as marches by Martin Luther King and Jesse Jackson. Grace is now a book editor and publisher based in Huntington.



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