Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

“Justice” in America: Two Shootings

Steven E. Meyer


April 20, 2012

By Steven E. Meyer

On February 26, 2012, George Zimmerman fatally shot Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. That much is not in doubt.  But what happened after that must call into question the course of justice.  The only person who knows what happened is George Zimmerman and he has, of course, retold events to make him appear innocent of criminal charges.  

Nonetheless, there was an almost immediate rush to judgment and presumption of guilt, not only by Martin’s grieving family but by a broad swath of the American public.  Those who were convinced of Zimmerman’s guilt organized large, nationwide demonstrations and threatened economic boycotts of Sanford if Zimmerman was not arrested. Charges of racial profiling were loud and clear. The Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton played prominent roles in demanding Zimmerman’s arrest, and the media gave this case pride of place on a daily basis. As a result, the Sanford Chief of Police was forced to step down when Zimmerman was not arrested immediately.

There was no presumption of “innocent until proven guilty” for Zimmerman.  There was no opportunity to objectively examine the evidence to truly determine whether there were sufficient grounds to charge Zimmerman.  The evidence that prosecutors do have seems conflicted: Zimmerman was armed and may have taken his role as a community protector too seriously, neighbors report seeing Zimmerman bandaged, but grainy film footage taken after Zimmerman was taken into custody does not appear to show wounds.  After first declining to arrest Zimmerman, Seminole County Special Prosecutor Angela Corey charged him with second-degree murder, and he now awaits trial.  Would these charges have been filed without the surrounding pressure?  Perhaps, but it may be reasonable to conclude that it was not the evidence, but the constant public, emotional drumbeat of demands for an arrest that played the primary role. 

Did Zimmerman commit murder or was he defending himself?  We simply do not know and the atmosphere surrounding the events of the case will make it very difficult for him to receive a fair trial.  When he is tried, race, guns and Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” law will also be on trial.  Given the highly charged—at times almost hysterical—events in this case, it even may be impossible to impanel an objective jury. This is, indeed, a sorry day for justice in America.

About a thousand miles to the West, though, another shooting case unfolded where justice seemingly was much better served.  On Good Friday, two white men shot and killed three black men and attempted to kill several others in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  For a period of time, it was unclear exactly who the white killers were or why they had done this.  Several days after the killings, Tulsa police arrested Jake England and Alvin Watts, who ultimately admitted to the murders, apparently in retaliation for the killing of England’s father by a black man two years earlier.  The pair has been charged with first-degree murder.

But in the interim between the murders and the arrests, there were no demonstrations, no threats of boycotts, relatively modest media coverage and, although Reverend Jackson has been involved, his contributions have been low key and have come mostly after the arrests were made.   Race, as revealed by a rant on England’s Facebook page, was the clear motive.  The fact that arrests came more quickly in the Tulsa case than in the Florida case may have short-circuited more extreme public pressure.  But even if this is true, justice is not a matter of satisfying the pressure brought by public outcry, the demands of public figures, the scope of media attention, or the understandable grief of a stricken family.  Justice is served by due process and by an objective examination of evidence.  Arguably, this was done in the Tulsa case, but so far has been sorely lacking in the Florida case. 

—Steven E. Meyer is a Fellow at Center for Public Justice. 

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”