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The Monsterization of Trayvon Martin | The Nation

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The Monsterization of Trayvon Martin

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For all the attention attracted by Florida’s ”shoot first” law, ultimately the trial did not hinge on it. Zimmerman waived his right to a “stand your ground” hearing (in which a judge, not a jury, would have determined whether he was reasonable in thinking that his life was on the line), opting for a traditional self-defense argument instead. This was a canny choice, in part because Florida is the only state that allows juries as small as six to decide serious criminal cases. Six-member juries are, statistically at least, easier to sway toward prosecution. It was therefore significant that Zimmerman’s attorneys deployed a full-out indictment of Martin more than a defense of their client.

About the Author

Patricia J. Williams
Patricia J. Williams
Patricia J. Williams, a professor of law at Columbia University, was born in Boston in 1951 and holds a BA from...

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It helped that the stage was set for this from the start. On February 26, 2012, when Zimmerman killed Martin, the Sanford Police Department quickly and all too casually concluded, after a halfhearted investigation, that they were “prohibited” from arresting him. Martin’s body was shoved in the morgue with little effort to identify it until his parents filed a missing-persons report; his wet clothing was tossed carelessly in a plastic bag to rot, possibly degrading key evidence. Zimmerman was lightly interrogated, then released without charge. No drug or alcohol testing was performed on him. 

It would take more than a month of increasing public pressure for the case to be re-examined by a special prosecutor, and for the State of Florida to press for second-degree murder—arguably a curious bit of overcharging, since it imposes a burden as high (depraved or intentional disregard for human life) as the burden in a “stand your ground” defense  (a mere preponderance of the evidence) is low. Also surprising, the prosecution brought forth the charge of manslaughter (reckless disregard for human life) only at the end of the trial, almost as an afterthought.

Tasked with proving that Zimmerman was unreasonable to kill Martin, the prosecution was dismally scattered as a whole. Even the evidence it entered to illuminate the time sequence—a grainy tape of Martin shopping at a 7-Eleven—was freighted with unaddressed innuendo. No one looks innocent on a store’s security camera. Nor did it help that the store clerk was brought in to say he didn’t remember Martin—testimony of so little relevance, it seemed only posited to reassure us that he didn’t rob the place.

Worse, the prosecution repeatedly failed to object at terribly crucial moments, allowing the jury to hear irrelevant rumor, damaging insinuation and general spuriousness. Defense attorneys Mark O’Mara and Don West built their case around profiling Martin: grilling witnesses about other burglaries in the neighborhood, speculating about crime, even hypothesizing about a piece of broken window awning found five days after Martin was killed, in the bushes directly beneath the awning to which it belonged. Could it not be used as what’s called a “slim jim” for break-ins? Could it not have been part of a plot planned by Martin? Wasn’t Zimmerman’s fear about crime in the neighborhood a reasonable one? Wasn’t it true that a young man named Emmanuel Burgess had been prowling around the neighborhood only weeks before? Tall, skinny black guy? Serving five years for burglary now? Hadn’t there been a spree of burglaries? A rash of crime? The defense posited the entire annals of Sanford, Florida, crime into the record, drawing out the details of backpacks and bikes stolen by persons who just happened not to be Trayvon Martin.

Day after day, the defense insinuated, with virtually no pushback from the prosecution, that Martin was guilty of something illicit—and not just of allegedly struggling with Zimmerman so as to “cause his own death,” but of planning robberies, of taking too long to walk the mile between the store and his father’s house. So with little challenge, O’Mara and West were able to conduct the jury through a psychic geography that was strikingly similar to that of the Central Park jogger case, in that they erased the very possibility of innocence—in this case, of the victim. Like the “wilding” teenagers wrongfully convicted of a brutal rape decades ago, Trayvon Martin was made as mythic as some ancient berserker, a menacing wraith of superhuman, “sucker-punching” strength, a heathen brute looming from the shadows on a dark and stormy night. He was a danger to the castle keep, his head filled with plans to do who-knows-what, lurking where he did not belong: right here in River City! In your very backyards! In the threat to God’s peace that is the Young Black Male!

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Once demonized, this teenage boy with his packet of candy and sweet tea was established as Trayvon the Destroyer, whose ferocious natural instinct for battle required heroic vanquishing and literal eradication. The defense team did a fine job of advancing this story line—so much so that as the trial went on, one began thinking of Zimmerman as St. George, slayer of dragons. Dragons threaten more than just their slayers, however; after all, selfless rescue is the genre’s leitmotif. It is the bigger business of dragons to devour beautiful princesses, such as the defense’s last witness, Olivia Bertalan, a pretty young woman whose home in the same gated community was burgled two years ago by—gasp—a black teenager. (Again, not Trayvon Martin, but that’s where carrying the Mark of the Beast rendered him enough akin.)  

Bertalan was a most eloquent and compelling witness in her description of Zimmerman’s gentlemanly attentions in the wake of that trauma, coming to aid her and her family and checking up on her more than twenty times in the weeks thereafter. She was perfectly cast: a modest, comely damsel in distress. To quote the defense in its closing argument, Olivia Bertalan became “the face” of the case, a brand logo for America terrorized, for innocence violated, for all that is endangered in America. Who could fail to be moved?

The effectiveness of Bertalan’s testimony in proving that it’s perfectly reasonable to be deathly afraid of any and all young black men manifested itself crassly in the words of Geraldo Rivera, appearing on Fox & Friends. “So it’s a dark night, a 6-foot, 2-inch hoodie-wearing stranger is in the immediate housing complex,” he said. “How would the ladies of that jury have reacted? I submit that if they were armed, they would have shot and killed Trayvon Martin a lot sooner than George Zimmerman did. This is self-defense.”

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