It turns out the Race Case of the Decade might end up not being about race after all.
The trial of George Zimmerman, a Florida man who has admitted shooting and killing an African-American teenager, Trayvon Martin, was supposed to be a test of racial justice, and of the so-called "Stand Your Ground" law that allows Floridians wide leeway in using deadly force against someone they perceive to be threatening them.
Instead, the trial, now in its third week, has barely touched on either issue. Prosecutors are indeed trying to give the impression that Zimmerman "profiled" Martin in some way – but race has not been part of their effort to discredit Zimmerman's claim that he was merely defending his own life. And the "Stand Your Ground" law has not been a major issue, except as it goes to Zimmerman's credibility as a witness.
Zimmerman had initially said he knew nothing about the Florida law; an instructor at the college where Zimmerman was taking criminal justice classes says the topic was indeed covered in his class (and Zimmerman earned an "A"). But a bitter, emotional fight over racial prejudice and a state gone mad with the idea of random militias? It hasn't happened.
That's not to say race and the gun mentality aren't factors in the shooting death itself. Zimmerman was in his car when he saw what he described to police as a suspicious person who appeared up to no good. The fact that Martin was a black teenager in a gated community not accustomed to seeing black teenagers was quite possibly a factor in Zimmerman's assessment. And Zimmerman had a loaded gun and used it on the unarmed Martin.
The defense insists that Zimmerman, in a tussle with Martin of debated violence (the defense said the slight Martin slammed Zimmerman's head into the cement numerous times; a prosecution witness says Zimmerman's injuries were very minor), shot the boy when Martin went for a weapon. The gun was just inches from Martin's heart when it went off.
And the drug use? Martin, it turns out, had a small amount of THC (a substance from marijuana) in his system when he died. The defense fought strenuously to get that fact entered into evidence, then abruptly dropped it. Was it because it's a risk to impugn the character of a dead boy? Or was it because the prosecution would surely call a rebuttal witness – a doctor, say, or maybe 10,000 college students – who would testify that marijuana is a depressant that tends to mellow out its users instead of making them aggressive? Nor is Zimmerman's background – prescription drugs, previous accusations of assault – allowed into evidence.
So instead of getting a "Law and Order" style, high-drama case that will lead to some kind of massive public reaction, the case is what so many such cases are: just a methodical presentation of evidence and rebuttals. And despite the tragic reality – a boy who had been armed with nothing more powerful than a bag of Skittles and a container of iced tea is dead – Zimmerman may well be acquitted. The jury may even feel that Zimmerman committed second-degree murder or the lesser charge of manslaughter, but also determine that enough reasonable doubt exists to let him go free.
We expected a legal and racial explosion. What we ended up with is just another sad story in a country where fear and guns lead to tragedy.