Editorial: Zimmerman case requires clear-eyed reflection

07/16/2013 12:00 AM

07/21/2013 9:04 AM

In the wake of murder defendant George Zimmerman's acquittal, President Barack Obama rightly sought to cool the reaction, which boiled over violently in too many places, including in Oakland.

"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 son," Obama said after the verdict was returned in Sanford, Fla.

Unfortunately, the president's was a rare voice of reason. Other politicians have played to the crowd, inflaming already dangerous tensions.

Trayvon Martin never should have died on Feb. 26, 2012. Zimmerman, a wanna-be cop who claimed to be defending his neighborhood, shot and killed the unarmed teenager. Martin was black, and Zimmerman half white and half Latino. Because this is America, race became the overriding issue.

Martin was racially profiled, Zimmerman's critics insist. Certainly, racial profiling is a fact of life. Every black man in America can tell a story about being stopped by police or followed by someone who found his innocent presence suspicious. Obama acknowledged that reality days after the killing when he said, "Trayvon Martin could have been my son."

But racial profiling, while unfair, is not a crime. And it's certainly not murder. There was no evidence presented in court to prove that Zimmerman was motivated by racial animus. Instead, he was shown to be reckless, stupid and, like too many of his fellow Americans, armed and dangerous.

Persuaded that he had acted in self-defense, local authorities refused to charge Zimmerman. Florida's governor intervened by requesting a special prosecutor, properly so. Whether one approves of the trial's outcome or not, this incident needed to be adjudicated.

Unfortunately, pushed by angry crowds and an irresponsible media, the special prosecutor overreached by charging Zimmerman with second-degree murder. That required prosecutors to prove that he was motivated by "a depraved mind, hatred, malice, evil intent or ill will." There was no evidence of that.

The sad reality is that only two people know what happened, Zimmerman and Martin, and Martin is dead.

Zimmerman's injuries, including a gash on the back of his head, made plausible his story that Martin was the aggressor. That reasonable doubt led reasonably to acquittal. The more appropriate charge was manslaughter, but the jury rejected even that charge.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder restated on Monday that the Justice Department continues to investigate to determine whether federal civil rights charges should be brought. A clear-eyed review by federal authorities is warranted.

Martin's family likely will pursue a civil wrongful death action, which also is appropriate. Florida and other states that have loose "stand your ground" gun laws ought to review and tighten those statutes.

The danger of Zimmerman's acquittal is that it will be misread, and could encourage others to repeat the recklessness that spurred Zimmerman to arm himself and take out after Martin, despite specific directions from police not to do so.

The danger is that the acquittal will embolden more vigilantism, and more make-my-day killings of innocent teenagers.

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