Trayvon Martin case: As prosecution rests, saga captivates Americans

Florida prosecutors on Friday finished laying out their case against George Zimmerman, who faces second-degree murder charges in the fatal shooting of teenager Trayvon Martin. Why is this particular trial so riveting for so many?

Gary W. Green/Reuters
Defense attorney Mark O'Mara looks over at the state's attorneys during George Zimmerman's trial in Seminole circuit court in Sanford, Fla., July 5.

The fatal shooting of teenager Trayvon Martin, for which a Florida neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman is now on trial, seems to offer almost everyone who is following the case something to be upset about. Racial equity? Yes. Gun laws? Yes again. Fear of crime – and of the other? In there, too.

As the prosecution rested its case on Friday, the eventual trial outcome may well rest upon whether jurors believe that Mr. Zimmerman applied vigilante justice against one of “those [expletive] punks” that he had mentioned in a 911 call or, rather, that he was simply a concerned citizen attacked by a wanna-be thug with a penchant for martial arts violence.

Compared with the plethora of clenched-fisted opinions and commentary about Mr. Zimmerman's guilt or innocence, actual facts about Trayvon Martin's final moments are scarce. To convict Zimmerman of second-degree murder, the jury must agree that he exhibited "ill will, spite, hatred, or evil intent" in shooting Trayvon, according to Florida law.

Still, the final testimony presented by the prosecution Friday may yet sway perceptions. For instance, the autopsy report pegs Trayvon at 5-feet-11 and 158 pounds, not a more-imposing 6-feet-2, as Zimmerman supporters had described him in the past. At the time of the fatal altercation, Zimmerman, who stands 5-feet-7, weighed about 185 pounds. The information gives the public – and the jury – a more accurate account of what the Zimmerman-Martin matchup entailed.

Moreover, the medical examiner who testified Friday, about the autopsy results, said he found no abrasions on Trayvon’s right hand and minor abrasions on two fingers of his left hand. The prosecution is contending that Zimmerman had no need to fear for his life from Trayvon's attack. Earlier in the week, one prosecution witness characterized as "so minor" the injuries that Zimmerman sustained in his fight with Trayvon, citing photographs of the defendant.

Meanwhile, public preconceptions about the shooting appear to remain hardened, dividing into the pro-Trayon camp and the pro-Zimmerman camp. Whatever the verdict, one side is likely to be sorely disappointed.

“In a nutshell, [some people] fear all the worry about race, stereotypes and cosmic justice could interfere with the down-to-earth legal question: Did George Zimmerman, in fact, do anything wrong?” writes CNN’s Tom Foreman in a Friday column. “And just as importantly, will those who are already convinced of his guilt or innocence accept a verdict that says otherwise?”

A "not guilty" verdict for Zimmerman would likely redouble complaints from blacks that “if you are a young black man, it is entirely reasonable to expect that you’d be a permanent object of suspicion,” says George Ciccariello-Maher, a history and politics professor at Drexel University, in Philadelphia.

Moreover, a "not guilty" verdict may suggest to many Americans that it’s OK for nondeputized citizens to chase after strangers and then kill them if they put up a fight. This is what happens “when you develop a post 9/11 society grounded in fear,” writes Mark Karlin on the progressive TruthOut website. “No longer is it only James Bond who has a license to kill.”

On the other hand, if Zimmerman is found guilty, his supporters likely would blame a culture of political correctness that permeates even the judiciary, and argue that claims of racial profiling and the threat of social unrest are enough to overwash actual facts of the case.

To be sure, there is little hard evidence to prove Zimmerman did anything wrong under Florida law. In fact, defense attorney Mark O’Mara asked Trayvon’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, who testified Friday, whether she could be really sure that her son was “not responsible for his own death.”

"This has had everything to do with manipulation and race war from Day 1,” Ben Ferguson, a conservative talk-show host in Dallas, told CNN on Friday.

On Friday, raw emotion was added to the courtroom drama. Tracy Martin, Trayvon's father, struggled to look at autopsy photos of his slain son. Ms. Fulton testified that the screaming voice in the background of a 911 call was that of her son just before he was shot. 

“We’re not robots, we’re humans,” said lawyer Bill Shaeffer of Orlando, Fla., in a local TV interview. The jury can’t but help but be affected by the heightened emotional tension in the room, he added, especially as Fulton was cross-examined by defense counsel.  

It's clear, meanwhile, that public interest in the case is high. Major cable news networks have been covering the Zimmerman trial nearly gavel to gavel for the past two weeks. The high stakes, high emotion, imperfect characters, and polarized debate surrounding race, guns, crime, and justice heighten the drama.

The case that led President Obama to say that his son, if he had one, could have been a lot like Trayvon is both hard to look at and hard to look away from. 

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