While the tragedy and the Zimmerman verdict itself are nothing to laugh at, the stunned faces and rage of baffled folks in the street is something next to comical. You could see a “not guilty” verdict as close as a redneck in a pickup truck tailgating your rearview mirror. The background noise of cable pundits outside the Sanford, Florida courtroom might have provided some colorful entertainment, but legal process moves to its own tune. Apparently, large pockets of the population assumed the nearly all-White female/one Latina jury wasn’t sequestered – as if they spent their evening downtime munching on Doritos and talk shows.
That’s not how it works. If this verdict and the subsequent national outrage showed us anything, it’s how remarkably naïve and dishonest the American public is with regards to law, politics and race. We assume real-life courtroom dramas are supposed to play out like masterfully scripted Law and Order episodes. Rarely does that happen and only those who’ve either litigated or have seen it unfold first-hand know the deal. There were more than enough obvious signs that the prosecution’s case was crumbling from the get.
What’s left is the bomb-scarred battlefield of a cautionary tale that tells us what not to expect in racially-charged murder cases, especially those in places like Central Florida. Revisiting Harper Lee’s literary classic To Kill A Mockingbird could be useful therapy in the meantime (or watching it for those detached from the lost art of reading the American canon). But there are several reasons why an acquittal had been in the works since that fateful rain-soaked Florida night in February 2012.
1. George Zimmerman’s arrest had been somewhat of a fluke in the first place. The amazingly long and seasonal stretch of time between the shooting and the charges gave ample signs of where the Sanford Police Department’s head was at before the national outcry erupted. We’ve established that they really didn’t want to arrest him, and the fact that state’s attorney Angela Corey lunched on this as compared to her almost fanatical pursuit of Marissa Alexander’s ‘stand-your-ground’ case (a 32-year old Black woman fires a warning shot at an abusive husband and ends up with 20-years for NOT killing anyone) speaks volumes to the mindset. Arresting Zimmerman was simply engineered to placate the hoodie-wearing crowds of angry activists and to ease the growing fears of politicians and city officials nervous that demonstrations would soon turn into riots. To Corey and the Sanford PD, a Zimmerman charge should have been enough. This is Central Florida, y’all – what state are you from?
2. Judge Debra Nelson’s allergic reaction to the use of racially-tinged language should have raised more eyebrows than it did. But the fact that the players dominating the courtroom, including Trayvon Martin’s parents, made every attempt to remove race from what had amounted to a racially formulated trial didn’t strike the national discourse as somewhat odd. Celebrity couch conversation and the very measured comments of partial talking heads kept devouring the hype, putting Martin sympathizers on a steady diet of make-believe. Yet, Nelson – herself the type of lifelong, moderate southern Democrat who was a comfortable appointment pick for former Gov. Jeb Bush (R-FL) – stuck to guns on this. That move, however, was among the first of fatal blows to a rapidly deteriorating prosecution case which needed the racial animus narrative for a conviction.
3. If you thought a nearly all-White Central Florida female jury plus one Latina would acquit a non-Black “White-Hispanic” man with a gun permit then you must also believe Men In Black is actually a true-story Discovery Channel documentary. After that, one could have easily argued (and this one did, to the dismissive and nervous laughter of a few talk shows) that it was pretty much a wrap. Emerging conventional wisdom from both sides of the debate was that an all-female jury couldn’t possibly look into the teary eyes of Trayvon Martin and not feel some sort of estrogen-bubbling maternal bond. Didn’t work out like that, though. Putting aside the conversation on potentially sexist suppositions floating about, the conversation chose to ignore the role race can play in a case where even the judge makes aggressive attempts to extinguish it from the docket. That was the perfect jury for what is now accepted as a pretty shrewd and capable defense team: picking the right dose of racial formula based on Zimmerman’s own personal ancestry and betting that they all – privately – had their own purse-clutching or teeth-cringing moments at the shopping mall when walking past a noisy band of “rowdy” Black teens. Throw the Latina in and watch it explode in the prosecution’s face.
4. Let’s just keep it 100: Rachel Jeantel f****d this one up. The first few gripping moments of literacy-lapsing testimony from Martin “friend” and tragically uncoached witness Rachel Jeantel was the point where prosecution lawyers should have simply interrupted and screamed: “prosecution rests it case.” We now know this based on Juror B37’s special singling out of Jeantel during a recent CNN interview and how the witness “felt inadequate toward everyone because of her education and her communication skills.” Which is carefully worded cultural code to explain the key role Jeantel played in painting a portrait that possibly confirmed the jury’s own deep-seated notions about the life and times of Trayvon Martin. No detached and esoteric rescue attempt by Black intelligentsia could remove the irreparable damage of a witness that should have undergone a Herculean attitude and messaging makeover long before she took the stand – which is what good lawyers are supposed to do. That Martin’s parents and their lawyer were quick to backtrack on months of vocal political activism by claiming the trial was never about “race” was public affirmation of the Jeantel train wreck. It may be difficult to accept, but personality and appearance play as prominent a role in any courtroom exchange. The lesson: make sure you and your kids are prepared if and when it happens.
Everything else in between was simply salad dressing adding flavor for a defense win. From the excruciatingly and seemingly credible forensic expert who appeared to completely destroy the theory of Zimmerman aggression to uber-liberal Constitutional law legend Alan Dershowitz jumping in with his crushing argument for a Zimmerman acquittal. How many in the chattering class didn’t see this coming from months ago is a mystery – maybe folks just needed to play it safe for the sake of an anxious audience or maybe others just didn’t want to jinx it for Trayvon. In the end, however, some folks should have used those reliable racial Spidey senses.
CHARLES D. ELLISON is Chief Political Correspondent for UPTOWN Magazine, Washington Correspondent for The Philadelphia Tribune and the weekly Sunday Washington Insider for WDAS 105.3 FM (Philly). He can be reached via Twitter @charlesdellison.