Yes, race did play a role in the Trayvon Martin case
It doesn’t matter whether George Zimmerman was racist – the racial implications are being played out in courts, the media and websites all over the nation
Published: July 17, 2013
Or the case of Trevor Dooley, a black man from Valrico sentenced to eight years for manslaughter in a case that in some ways parallels Zimmerman’s. In 2010 the elderly Dooley initiated a confrontation with David James, a white 41-year-old, to complain about a teenage skateboarder whom James had given permission to use a community basketball court James and his eight-year-old daughter were playing on as well. Their argument became heated, and at one point Dooley lifted his T-shirt to show off the handgun tucked in his waistband. As Dooley turned to leave, James – who had four inches and 80 pounds on Dooley, and was three decades younger than him – spun him around and reached for his gun. They wrestled, and Dooley, who said after James grabbed his throat that he feared for his life, shot and killed James. A judge rejected Dooley’s Stand Your Ground claim, and a jury rejected his self-defense plea.
Both state and nationwide data tell us that white-on-black killings are much more likely to be deemed justified than white-on-white, black-on-black or, especially, black-on-white killings. In states with Stand Your Ground laws such as Florida, white-on-black killings are 354 times more likely to be considered justifiable than white-on-white killings, according to a recent investigation by PBS’s Frontline. Blacks who kill whites, meanwhile, are about 70 percent more likely to have their justification claims rejected than whites who kill whites.
The race of the victim plays a role too. Last year, the Tampa Bay Times conducted an exhaustive analysis of Stand Your Ground cases in Florida. In 73 percent of cases with a black victim, the killer faced no penalty, compared to 59 percent of those who killed a white person.
Zimmerman didn’t exert a Stand Your Ground defense. But that Frontline report found that the same pattern holds true even in states without these laws, albeit to a lesser extent: White killers are given the benefit of the doubt, especially if their victim is black. Black killers aren’t so lucky, especially if their victim is white.
Imagine for a second the races were reversed here, and a black man deemed an unarmed white teenager suspicious, followed him against police advice, shot and killed him, and claimed self-defense. Is there any chance the cops would believe him, or that he wouldn’t have found himself in handcuffs that night? Is there any chance this black neighborhood watchman would become a cause celebre on Fox News? Is there any chance that crowds of white people would show up at the courthouse, claiming him as a Second Amendment champion? Is there any chance he would have gotten away with it?
The evidence suggests it’s unlikely. Like it or not – and whether Zimmerman is a racist or not – the issue of race permeates this case, just as it does our entire criminal justice system.
If you look at the forest, not the trees or weeds, the jury’s verdict is almost unimaginable: an armed man profiles, stalks and kills an unarmed boy. Open and shut. But those trees and weeds – the ugly, confusing, disputed details – are where these cases get decided. And if you look at Florida law, which puts the burden on the state to prove the defendant wasn’t acting in self-defense, rather than forcing the defendant to prove the shooting was justified, the jury’s decision was almost preordained (it’s important to note that this is the case in 49 out of 50 states – Florida law is not unusual in this regard).
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