Trayvon Martin and Southern Justice

Casey Bonner, Junior Editor, Alabama Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Law Review

Casey Bonner, Junior Editor, Alabama Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Law Review

It is August 1955 in Money, Mississippi. A pre-teen boy from Chicago, Illinois is spending part of his summer vacation visiting some relatives in the Delta, and the boys are currently hanging out in a small, local grocery store. An attractive woman walks in, and the boys’ attention is instantly drawn to her.  The Yankee, a visitor to the South, doesn’t know the old customs of the state. He whistles at the beautiful woman. The grocery store briefly falls silent before the boys are thrown out in an uproar. The visitor has made a grievous mistake: the woman at whom he had whistled is the grocery store owner’s wife. She is also white.

Several days later, the visitor goes missing. Rumors start to circulate; word starts flying around that the grocery store owner, Roy Bryant, and two other men have kidnapped the visitor. The sheriff quickly makes an arrest and charges the three men with kidnapping. Three days after the visitor is abducted, two boys fishing in the Tallahatchie River find his body. His body is beaten, bloody, and bruised. His captors had tied his body to a heavy fan blade with barbed wire tied around the neck. His eye is dislodged, and he has a gunshot wound slightly above his ear. The young male visitor, Emmett Till, had been killed for one reason and one reason only: He was Black.[1]

Flash forward to February 2012 in Sanford, Florida. A high school senior is walking home from a nearby grocery store after buying Skittles and some iced tea. He’s crossing through a neighborhood being watched by the Neighborhood Watch Captain, George Zimmerman. Zimmerman notices the young man walking through the neighborhood, and calls and reports the young man’s presence as “suspicious.” The police urge Zimmerman not to pursue the young man, but Zimmerman does not heed their order. What exactly happened next is still unknown, but the end result is clear: 17-year-old Trayvon Martin is dead, shot by George Zimmerman.[2]

Since Trayvon’s death, facts have emerged and allegations have been made that have led some to call Trayvon a “modern-day Emmitt Till.”[3] The 911 call from Zimmerman to Sanford police reveals that Zimmerman told police a Black male, wearing a hoodie, was walking through the neighborhood, which Zimmerman felt was suspicious. Zimmerman told 911 dispatchers that he was following the young man, which they instructed him not to do.  Zimmerman’s own statement to 911 dispatchers contradicts what he told police after they arrived on the scene of the crime – that Trayvon had attacked him, and he had shot Trayvon out of self-defense.[4] When police arrived, Trayvon was unarmed and carrying only his cell phone, a bag of Skittles, and an iced tea. Police did not arrest Zimmerman, nor did they perform any tests to determine whether Zimmerman was intoxicated. Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee stepped down from his duties after the city council passed a no-confidence vote in Lee. The 911 call reveals Trayvon was screaming for help before he was killed.[5]

 Amid calls for justice from not just Trayvon’s parents, but to the President to everyday citizens, the tragedy continues. Trayvon’s girlfriend was on the phone with him when the scuffle began, and she heard someone accost Trayvon shortly before the line went dead. Facts continue to emerge that indicate Zimmerman’s actions against Trayvon were racially motivated. Most recently, reports have emerged that Zimmerman used a racial slur while following Trayvon, which was recorded on the 911 call.[6] On March 23rd, students in Florida high schools participated in a walk out in protest of the lack of arrest in Trayvon’s killing.[7] That same day, President Obama stated at a press conference, “[W]e will get to the bottom of exactly what happened.[8] Trayvon’s parents have attended rallies in honor of their son’s life and have publicly called for justice.[9] Although Zimmerman remains free, his actions will be reviewed by a grand jury, and the FBI and Justice Department have opened their own investigations into the case.[10] Unfortunately, justice may not be served so easily.

 The issue: Florida is among twenty-one states that have a “Stand Your Ground” law that allows people to use deadly force when engaged in a fight.[11] The law reads as follows:

A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.

Thus, in order to have a successful claim, Zimmerman would only need to prove that he had a right to be where he was at the time and that he believed it was necessary for his to shoot Trayvon in order to protect himself from harm or death. The only real question left is whether Zimmerman had cause to believe Trayvon was going to harm him. Seeing as Trayvon was found holding only a bag of Skittles and an iced tea, Zimmerman will have a difficult time showing he was reasonably fearful of “great bodily harm” or death. When the grand jury reviews the evidence – Zimmerman’s statements, the 911 call, Trayvon’s girlfriend’s testimony about their phone call, and the situation as a whole – they will be able to start the steps of bringing Zimmerman to justice.

Even though the process of determining what really happened that night has finally begun, scrutiny of the police department’s handling of the case is opening them up to harsh criticism. Under the law, police are allowed to determine at the scene of the homicide whether they believe the self-defense claim, which is precisely what the police did in the Martin case. However, can they really be faulted for following the law? An at-the-scene determination of Zimmerman’s truthfulness could easily be believed: he had a bloody nose, scratches on his skin, and grass stains on his shirt, all signs of an apparent scuffle.[12] The police were not obligated to take Zimmerman in for further questioning, nor were they obligated to perform any sort of test to determine whether Zimmerman was intoxicated. Yet some have claimed the police did not do enough; they claim if the situation were reversed and Trayvon had been the one claiming self-defense, there would have been an arrest immediately. Whether that is true we do not know for it is only speculative, unfortunately, statistics suggest that statement may have some truth to it.

 Statistics indicate that prosecutors are three times more likely to seek the death penalty when the perpetrator is Black and the victim is White.  Studies have also shown that prosecutors are less likely to seek the death penalty when the victim is Black, regardless of the perpetrator’s race.[13] Aside from the eventual sentence, Black defendants are incarcerated 5.6 times more than White defendants.[14] Even more shocking, White defendants receive sentences ten percent shorter than those received by Black defendants, even when charged with the same offense.[15] Thirty-two percent of Black men will be incarcerated at some point in their lives, while only six percent of White men will suffer the same fate. For drug offenses specifically, African-Americans are thirty-seven percent of those arrested, although they are only thirteen percent of the United States population as a whole.

Though it clearly shouldn’t, race quite obviously plays a factor in criminal charges and criminal sentencing. It mattered in 1955 with Emmett Till: though Till’s captors were caught and charged, an all-white jury acquitted the defendants in a little over an hour. One juror commented, “If we hadn’t stopped to drink pop, it wouldn’t have taken that long.[16] Some jurors admitted they believed the defendants were guilty, but they did not think the death penalty was appropriate for White men who had killed a Black man.

We as a society have progressed since 1955. We cannot allow people like George Zimmerman to stem that progress. We cannot allow Trayvon’s memory to fade. We cannot allow Trayvon to become a modern-day Emmett Till. We cannot allow justice to pass us by. We must continue to push for change at every chance we are given. We must continue to change the way we see each other and the way we view justice.  We must continue to seek justice for Trayvon — for justice is the reason we study law.


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One thought on “Trayvon Martin and Southern Justice

  1. kent daniel March 28, 2012 at 12:52 pm Reply

    it took u a while but you finally got to the fact that the police had information and witnesses that might work against your narrative. You guys are like someone listening to a baseball game on the radio while yelling at the umpire for a bad call. If you hook your wagon to one side of a six sided story–you’ll look like a fool when all party’s speak.

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