On Saturday, July 13, 2013, Trayvon Benjamin Martin was found guilty of being a young, Black man in America.
In a case that has riveted this nation, George Zimmerman, the self-appointed ‘neighborhood watch captain’ who disobeyed dispatchers orders not to follow Trayvon and killed him, was found not guilty in the 18th Circuit Court of Florida.
After sixteen hours of deliberations over the course of two days, the six-woman jury rendered a not guilty verdict on all counts. After the verdict was read, Judge Debra S. Nelson informed Zimmerman that he was free to go and he thanked his lawyers and hugged his family members.
Though the parents of Trayvon, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, sat through every day of the trial, they were not present to hear the verdict. They chose Twitter to thank their supporters and express their thoughts.
Sybrina Fulton sent out only one tweet, choosing to thank supporters and focusing on God during her time of disappointment.
“Lord during my darkest hour I lean on you,” tweeted Fulton. “You are all that I have. At the end of the day, GOD is still in control. Thank you all for your prayers and support. I will love you forever Trayvon!!! In the name of Jesus!!!”
Tracy Martin expressed his appreciation for people fighting on behalf of his son and also shared his feelings.
“Even though I am broken hearted my faith is unshattered I WILL ALWAYS LOVE MY BABY TRAY,” tweeted Tracy Martin.
JURY SELECTION IN TRIAL
The jury convicted Trayvon of his own murder and freed Zimmerman of murder, but that conviction and acquittal did not come from a jury of Trayvon’s peers.
The population of Seminole County is 10 percent African American, but a jury of five White women and a white Hispanic woman found Zimmerman “not guilty.”
In Florida, juries consist of six people; 12 jurors are required only for criminal trials involving capital cases, where the death penalty is applicable. Zimmerman's jury consisted of six members and four alternatives.
On June 10, jury selection began with 100 prospective jurors filling out questionnaires. 500 people received summonses, and the process for picking a jury was expected to take two weeks. On June 18, 2013, forty potential jurors made it past the initial screening process. 16 were men, and 24 were women.
The defense struck one potential juror, a female African American, for failing to disclose that her pastor had advocated strongly on behalf of Trayvon Martin. The state attempted to strike one woman whose husband owns guns, and who said she may have difficulty sending someone to prison. They also attempted to strike a woman who asked why Martin was out at night. The judge denied the strikes and both women are part of the six person jury.
GEORGE ZIMMERMAN – GIVEN ‘STAND YOUR GROUND’
Ever since this case hit the national scene, it has re-energized the long-running debate in the United States over racial profiling and civil rights violations.
On February 26, 2012, the 17-year old Trayvon, who was armed with nothing but a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea, was murdered by Zimmerman, a white Hispanic male, while he was walking back home from the convenience store.
During the trial, 9-1-1 calls show that Zimmerman called the police to report a ‘suspicious person’ walking in the neighborhood. When Zimmerman reported that the person (Trayvon) was noticeably a Black man and that “he looked like he was on drugs,” the dispatcher told Zimmerman not to confront Trayvon, and that they would handle things because they were on their way. Zimmerman responded that “they always get away,” prompting him to pursue Trayvon and subsequently shoot him in the heart with his licensed firearm.
On another 9-1-1 call heard during the trial, you hear a homeowner talking to a police dispatcher. In the background you hear the screams of a person yelling for “Help!” when all of a sudden you hear a loud gunshot and then the screams for help cease.
On the night of the shooting, the Sanford Police department and the police chief refused to arrest Zimmerman, because they believed their initial investigation supported his self-defense claim, and that they were therefore prohibited from making an arrest or prosecution. After police accepted the testimony from Zimmerman that Martin attacked him, he avoided arrest for six weeks following the shooting.
The lack of an arrest triggered protests and led to the resignation of the police chief. After much pressure was put on the state and the U.S. Department of Justice, Florida State Attorney Angela Corey eventually assigned a special prosecutor to the case and Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder. The case highlighted Florida’s self-defense law which allows lethal force to be used if the victim fears great bodily harm or death and was the catalyst behind how Zimmerman was able to initially avoid arrest.
Now, while “stand your ground” seemed to have worked for Zimmerman in his criminal case to help avoid jail time, it doesn’t appear to work too well for African Americans.
MARISSA ALEXANDER – BLACK AND DENIED ‘STAND YOUR GROUND’
Marissa Alexander was a 31-year-old mother of a toddler and 11-year-old twins, when her life changed forever and the “stand your ground” law in Florida that Zimmerman used didn’t save her from being sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Alexander had never been arrested before.
Alexander had just delivered her newborn child from her estranged husband, Rico Gray, nine days before and she had gotten a restraining order against him. Thinking that he was not at their former home, Alexander went there on August 1, 2010, to retrieve the rest of her clothes and items. Upon her arrival, an argument ensued and Alexander said she feared for her life, so she went out to her vehicle and retrieved the gun she legally owned. She went back inside to get her items and ended up firing a shot into the wall, which ricocheted into the ceiling. Gray testified that he saw Alexander point the gun at him and looked away before she fired the shot. He claimed that she was the aggressor and that he begged her to put the weapon away.
The judge decided to disregard Alexander's self-defense claim based on the “stand your ground” law, stating that Alexander could have run out of the house to escape, but got the gun and went back inside instead. Alexander rejected a plea deal that would have given her a shorter, three-year prison sentence, choosing instead to go to trial. After testimony and evidence were presented, the jury deliberated only 12 minutes before finding her guilty of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
Sadly, because Alexander fired her gun while committing the felony she was convicted of, Florida's mandatory-minimum gun law dictated that she should receive a 20-year sentence. Unlike Zimmerman, in this case, nobody was hurt and the jury found her guilty and the legal system showed its injustice.
JOHN MCNEIL – BLACK AND DENIED ‘STAND YOUR GROUND’
A little more than 460 miles north of Sanford, Florida, a Black man named John McNeil was just released from prison, after receiving a life sentence for shooting Brian Epp, a White man who trespassed on his property and attacked him at his home in Georgia. Georgia is another “stand your ground” state.
In early 2005, McNeil and his wife, Anita, hired Epp’s construction company to build a new house in Cobb County, Georgia. After having difficulty working with Epp and having several heated confrontations, the McNeils decided to just close on their house early and stop working with Epp, whom they found to be threatening. At the closing, both parties agreed that Epp would have 10 days to complete the work, after which he would stay away from the property. Epp failed to keep up his end of the bargain and on December 6, 2005, McNeil’s 15-year-old son, La’Ron, called his dad and told him that a man he didn’t recognize was lurking in the backyard.
While his son was still on the phone, McNeil heard an argument break out and he instantly recognized Epp’s voice in the background. According to La’Ron’s testimony, Epp pointed a folding utility knife at La’Ron’s face and said, “Why don’t you make me leave?” at which point McNeil told his son to go inside while he called 9-1-1. McNeil proceeded to head to his house to check on his son and the situation.
According to McNeil’s testimony, when he pulled up to his house, Epp was next door getting something out his truck and stuffing it in his pocket. McNeil testified that he grabbed his gun from the glove compartment of his car and jumped out. He said that Epp approached him and so he fired a warning shot at the ground in order to have Epp back off. Instead of backing off, McNeil testified that Epp charged at him while reaching for his pocket, so he fired again, this time fatally striking Epp in the head. After the police arrived, investigators found that Epp had a folding knife in his pocket.
After a neighbor across the street who witnessed the encounter confirmed McNeil’s story, police determined that it was a case of self-defense and they did not charge him in the death. But, after almost a year after Epp’s death, Cobb County District Attorney Patrick Head decided to prosecute McNeil for murder. In 2006, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
In 2008, McNeil appealed his case to the Georgia Supreme Court with all but one of the seven justices upholding his conviction. The sole dissent came from Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears who argued, “the State failed to disprove John McNeil’s claim of self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt.”
McNeil spent more than six years in a Georgia state prison after the conviction that he said was in self-defense and was released from prison in February after pleading guilty to a lesser charge.
Sadly, his wife and high school sweetheart of 22 years tried to wait until he was free, but 10 days before his release she died and was buried on Valentine’s Day with McNeil by her graveside. In their last phone conversation, McNeil told her how much he loved her, and they discussed his plan to plead guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter so he could get home to be with her before she died.
McNeil’s treatment was different than that of Zimmerman, who was afforded the benefit of the doubt by jurors, despite Trayvon being unarmed.
JOHN H. WHITE – BLACK AND DENIED ‘STAND YOUR GROUND’
On August 9, 2006, a Suffolk County jury found John H. White, a 54-year old Black man, guilty of second-degree manslaughter and criminal possession of a weapon for the shooting death of an unarmed White teenager outside his home.
W hite was convicted of shooting Daniel Cicciaro, 17, in the face, after Cicciaro and several friends left a party and showed up to White’s house slightly after 11 p.m. to challenge his son Aaron, then 19, to a fight. White awoke to hearing threats, profanities and racial epithets, prompting him to grab a loaded Beretta pistol he kept in the garage of his house in Miller Place, a predominantly white hamlet on Long Island.
White was married, and a hard-working father of three who tried to better his family’s lifestyle by moving to better neighborhoods.
The trial had serious racial overtones, where in the courtroom gallery during the four-week trial, Blacks were seated on one side and Whites on the other.
Mr. White testified that his son woke him up from a deep sleep the night of the shooting, yelling that “some kids are coming here to kill me.” Mr. White said he considered the angry teenagers a “lynch mob.” He testified that their racist language recalled the hatred he saw as a child visiting the segregated Deep South and stories of his grandfather being chased out of Alabama in the 1920s by the Ku Klux Klan.
White testified that he told his wife to call 9-1-1 and that the shooting happened accidentally after he began turning to retreat and Daniel lunged at the gun.
The prosecutor acknowledged that the teenagers used epithets, but said that White fanned the gun menacingly at each teenager and that Daniel did not lunge, but rather defiantly slapped the gun away and was eventually shot point-blank in the face.
The whole incident started when Cicciaro believed a false rumor that White’s son, Aaron, was responsible for an Internet chat room message that threatened to rape a girl that they all knew.
Cicciaro showed up at the Whites’ house looking to confront Aaron that night and to defend the girl’s honor, his parents said. Instead, Cicciaro was killed.
EMMETT TILL REVISITED
This Trayvon Martin travesty is reminiscent of another high profile case that helped strengthen the Civil Rights Act.
In 1955, Mamie Bradley sent her 14-year-old son, Emmett Till, from Chicago to rural Mississippi to spend his summer holiday with family. As she packed his suitcase, she gave him some instructions on how to handle himself in the South. She said, "If you have to get on your knees and bow when a White person goes past, do it willingly."
Till was senselessly murdered by two White men in August, 1955. His crime was ‘allegedly’ flirting with a white woman named Carolyn Bryant. Bryant’s husband, Roy, and his half-brother J.W. Milam went to Till’s great uncle’s home and took Till to a barn where they beat him mercilessly. They gouged out one of his eyes, shot him in the head and threw his body in the Tallahatchie River with a 70-pound cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire. His body was discovered and retrieved from the river three days later. Bryant and Milam were indicted for kidnapping and murder.
Bryant and Milam were acquitted for the kidnap and murder of Till, despite all of the evidence presented. Several jurors acknowledged that they knew Bryant and Milam were guilty, but chose to exercise their civic duty as a juror to vote to acquit them because they felt life imprisonment or the death penalty were not fitting for a white man taking a black man’s life.
In 1956, Bryant and Milam boldly chose to break their silence and were paid roughly $4,000 to tell their story to William Bradford Huie in Look magazine. They unashamedly admitted to killing Till, but neither of them thought of themselves as guilty of having done anything wrong. They said that they only wanted to scare Till but when he refused to beg for mercy that they "had" to kill him.
The reaction to their interview was explosive, with protests and outrage dominating the nation. The community and civil rights leaders pushed the federal government to get more involved and investigate the case and the injustice associated with it.
The Till case became an international event, with news articles and editorials across the country and overseas, condemning the verdict and Mississippi. With the press coverage, the NAACP involvement and Till’s mother engaged, they were hopeful that Milam and Bryant would at least be punished for kidnapping. But just weeks before the grand jury convened, Mississippi Senator James O. Eastland, a staunch segregationist and plantation owner, dug up records on Emmett’s father, Louis Till's past and leaked it to the press.
The U.S. Army executed Private Louis Till in Italy in 1945 for raping two Italian women and killing a third, which they sought to use to show that Emmett's behavior ran in the family. On November 9, 1955, a Mississippi grand jury refused to indict Milam and Bryant on kidnapping charges and both men went free.
Bradley turned to the federal government for help, but got none. She never received Louis Till’s Army records and was appalled that a senator, but not a widow, could receive that information. She tried to meet with President Dwight Eisenhower, but he refused. She reached out to the infamous FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who wrote to her in a memo stating, "There has been no allegation made that the victim [Emmett Till] has been subjected to the deprivation of any right or privilege which is secured and protected by the Constitution and the laws of the United States."
Thousands of letters protesting the verdict were sent to the White House. Bradley reached out to communities across the country, giving speeches to large crowds and galvanizing Black people. Black people got engaged, membership in the NAACP skyrocketed and African Americans came together in unity, driven by their anger and disgust with Till's killing, the legal injustice that took place and the sense of loss they felt for Bradley having loss her only child to murder.
As a result of the Till case, the civil rights movement was officially born and it didn’t matter what background everyone had. Being a Black person in America meant that Black people had to join together in unity to fight against injustice.
Concerning that very thing, Bradley stated, "Two months ago I had a nice apartment in Chicago. I had a good job. I had a son. When something happened to the Negroes in the South I said, 'That's their business, not mine.' Now I know how wrong I was. The murder of my son has shown me that what happens to any of us, anywhere in the world, had better be the business of us all."
The NAACP has started a petition, asking the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, to continue with their investigation into the facts and circumstances of the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.
A federal investigation into the shooting death is underway, and prosecutors from the Justice Department's civil rights division will review evidence from the FBI and the Florida criminal trial, the Justice Department said Sunday in a written statement.
Zimmerman was found ‘not guilty’ in criminal court, but the federal civil rights investigation and a possible civil suit may be forthcoming. Despite the acquittal in criminal court, Trayvon's parents could win in civil court, where a lower standard of proof is needed. A civil court jury can find Zimmerman ‘guilty’ if they believe he "more likely than not" is responsible for Trayvon's wrongful death, as opposed to the criminal court, where a jury can find a person ‘not guilty’ if they have "reasonable doubt."
About two-thirds of states in America have mandatory-minimum sentencing laws, mostly for drug crimes, according to a website for the Families Against Mandatory Minimums advocacy group. Texas has a “stand your ground” law on the books and many elected officials and community activists, here in Texas and abroad, are fighting to have it repealed.
AMERICA’S POLLUTED PERCEPTION PROBLEM
As we look at the above cases, many would argue that the pattern shows that Blacks are looked at as the guilty aggressor, while Whites are viewed as not guilty and focused on protecting themselves.
Are Black people looked at as guilty and White people looked at as innocent, in this country?
The overarching perception amongst many people is that Black people are overly aggressive criminals and inherently up to no good is an issue that needs to be discussed.
As we look at Black murder victims in this country who were unjustly killed and their killers given a slap on the wrist, such as Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Ida Lee Delaney, Carl Hampton and many others, many activists and citizens have become outraged. As we look at Black victims of police brutality, like Robbie Tolan, and even acts which were caught on video camera such as the Rodney King incident, many activists and citizens have become disenchanted with a system that they believe allows Black people to be victimized and the perpetrators to avoid accountability for their actions.
Days after the Zimmerman verdict, protestors and activists here in Houston and across the world, have expressed themselves through marches, protests and social media, in order to deal with their disappointment with the system of laws in this country related to Black people. Demonstrations, rallies and prayer vigils are planned for 100 cities this Saturday, July 20, to protest the verdict and to put pressure on the Justice Department to bring a civil case against Zimmerman.
On Monday, about 500 people gathered at a funeral home to protest the Zimmerman verdict. The rally consisted of a march down Wheeler Avenue and on to Highway 288 with an empty coffin. Organizers of the rally say that they coffin represented what racial profiling means for the future of young African American men in this country. At one point, the protestors stopped all traffic on Highway 288 going south, by marching and bringing the coffin across the highway.
The Trayvon Martin shooting has opened up the door for the opportunity to have genuine and frank discussions about race and the perception problem surrounding African Americans.
While many Black people are taking action through protesting and marching, others are seeking change by choosing to address these issues collectively. Several meetings and gatherings have been planned to map out a strategy to address the social and legal issues impacting African Americans and to address the violence concerning Black people. The Houston Forward Times will keep its readers abreast of any new happenings as they arise.