It was clear from the start that whatever happened in the George Zimmerman case would produce a strong reaction – especially if, as happened, Zimmerman was found not guilty. And one would hope that in the midst of all of the heavy emotion and tragedy of the case, a dialogue would ensue over race relations, over the vastly different experiences of adult white men and black teenagers wearing hoodies, and over what makes us afraid and how we're allowed to react to that fear. There have been some insightful and impressively soothing statements and behavior from people – President Obama's pitch-perfect statement, for example, and Trayvon Martin's own parents spending the day after the verdict in church, urging peace and calm.
The word "despicable" is not part of that dialogue – especially when it is uttered not only by an attorney arguing the case, but by one of the defense attorneys.
Lawyer Don West – who distinguished himself early on by opening his defense arguments with a wildly inappropriate knock-knock joke – told the Orlando Sun Sentinel after the verdict:
I think the prosecution of George Zimmerman was despicable. I'm glad this jury kept this tragedy from being a travesty.
This is the sort of talk one expects to find on Twitter or on some anonymous comments section on a newspaper website. This is not the sort of remark to be made by someone who is ostensibly committed to the criminal justice system.
Trayvon Martin was 17 years old, unarmed, and on his way back home after picking up candy and iced tea at the market. Now he is dead, and the person who shot him is on record having spotted Martin, declared him as a kid up to no good, gotten out of his car and shot him dead. The facts of what happened are somewhat murky, in part because Zimmerman gave conflicting accounts, and in part because the only other witness to the episode is in a grave.
Even if, as the jury found, Zimmerman rightly felt in danger of death or grievous bodily harm, Martin's death was a horrible tragedy. Florida law gives wide latitude to people claiming self-defense, and the jury was required to listen to the facts and decide whether the prosecution had proven, without a reasonable doubt, that Zimmerman did not feel in danger. That's a hard standard to reach, so as distressing as the not guilty verdict is to many people, it's an understandable conclusion.
But the idea that there was something offensive about even prosecuting Zimmerman, about putting him through the stress of a trial after taking the life of an unarmed boy, is stunning. West's self-righteous comment suggests that Zimmerman was the victim here, and that his insistence – despite his behavior and conflicting statements – that he killed someone only because there was no other way to protect himself is not just disrespectful to the dead boy. It's disrespectful to the criminal justice system. It is, arguably, despicable.
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