I watched more of the George Zimmerman trial than I expected. It was a fascination with watching the usual court criminal process turned upside down. In this case, unlike 99% of the cases in the US, the prosecution was completely outgunned.
Back in the days where I used to try or rather mostly plea out cases in Colorado state courts, I watched black male after black male processed through a system that treated them as if they were guilty. I would arrive in court with my typically white underage client and be immediately ushered to the front of the line.
As one district attorney told me, my juvenile’s parents were paying me by the hour whereas the long line of black kids were largely unrepresented. And because the last thing the DA wanted to do was try a full blown case with a white juvenile defendant I never had a client sentenced to anything other than a deferment or some other soft ending.
Then I would routinely watch a long line of young black men, obviously overcharged in the way George Zimmerman was overcharged, plead guilty. At times judges would suggest quietly to these young men to hire counsel, to talk to the DA, but it was inevitably a sullen shake of the head. It was inexplicable to me.
But 15 years later I finally understood that shake of the head. I travelled with our VP of Finance flying to Marco Island on the West Coast of Florida for a strategy session. Fred was the finest young executive I have ever encountered. He held two graduate degrees, an MBA and a JD. The son of a decorated US General, the brother of a decorated combat veteran fighting overseas, and the nephew of an aunt who died on 9/11 in the WTC collapse Fred and his family are the epitome of what makes America great. He is also black.
On the plane ride down we began discussing race in America. Fred was a runner. And like the rest of us who ran in suburban Maryland in the summer, Fred had to run at night due to the heat. Fred relayed it was routine for cops to pull him over at night as he ran.
That night outside our Marriott resort Fred went for his usual run and we agreed to meet at the outdoor bar in an hour. Fred was late to the point I began to worry. I frankly had never seen Fred late for anything.
But just as I began to text he rounded the corner with his usual bright smile and slumped into a lounge chair.
“Was just beginning to worry about you.”
“Got pulled over and it took awhile for them to run my license.”
In a resort town a highly toned athlete in state of the art running clothes and shoes pulled over for running? He was pulled over for being black. And like the sullen shake of the head in front of the judge, he had come to accept it as his lot in America.
There was no evidence of racial bias introduced against Zimmerman and the court found so in pretrial hearings surrounding the prosecutors proposed use of a “racial” profiling argument. No evidence. None.
And how did the court arrive at such a ruling? George Zimmerman had extremely talented and competent lawyers. They won the case at jury selection when the prosecutors were found on the record to be using race to exclude jurors. Then they made sure of their victory by interviewing a 180 witnesses and calling the leading forensic pathologist in the country. That pathologist demolished the prosecutors’ case that Zimmerman was the aggressor.
Those black young men standing before the judges so many years ago had access to a volunteer lawyer or overworked public defender with a part time investigator and no way to pay for a forensic pathologist. But worse, even if they had competent counsel they believed it would make no difference. The only racism in the Zimmerman trial was the racism inherent in a system that processes black men without effective counsel into a system of lifetime failure.
If we want to stop this, we as a society are going to have to insist that regardless of race every defendant gets competent defense counsel with the resources that George Zimmerman enjoyed. That would be a legacy worthy of Trayvon Martin.