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Steve Nelson: Relevant Variables in Zimmerman Trial

After more than a month of testimony, the trial of George Zimmerman for second-degree murder in the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin is coming to an end. As I write, the prosecution and defense are about to present closing arguments. The essential elements of the prosecution and defense cases are clear.

According to the prosecution, Zimmerman was an armed, self-appointed vigilante who “profiled” and followed the unarmed Martin into the racially-mixed gated community where Martin’s father lived. Zimmerman ignored police requests to discontinue his “pursuit.” An altercation ensued. It is unclear who instigated the confrontation, although only Zimmerman lived to give his version. The prosecution case rests on the assumption that the fatal incident was initiated by Zimmerman’s unnecessary pursuit and that the only relevant subsequent event was the fatal shot from Zimmerman’s handgun.

The defense claims that Zimmerman’s pursuit was a rational response to the presence of a “suspicious” subject in a neighborhood that had experienced a high rate of crime. In the Zimmerman version, Martin became the vicious assaulter, ambushing Zimmerman, punching him and banging his head against the concrete pavement. When the boy allegedly reached for Zimmerman’s gun, he shot the teenager in the chest in self-defense.

The jury will have to consider whose voice was recorded calling for help on a 911 call. They will have conflicting stories about the bushes from which Martin leapt to assault Zimmerman. The crime scene, apparently, has no bushes nearby. They will have to sort through the relevance of Zimmerman’s history of overreaction and Martin’s teenage misdeeds.

There is so much circumstantial “noise” in the claims and counterclaims that even seasoned prognosticators are loath to predict the verdict. But by eliminating irrelevant variables and creating a few hypotheticals, the truth seems unambiguous.

As to irrelevant variables, Zimmerman’s membership in a neighborhood-watch organization ranks high. The prosecution and conservative media have conferred a quasi-official status on Zimmerman, which becomes a context in which to view his actions. But this should have no legal bearing whatsoever. Zimmerman was simply a man carrying a loaded gun. He had no special rights, privileges or immunity from the consequences of his behavior. Martin’s school suspension for a marijuana violation is similarly irrelevant. Even in the crazy war on drugs, possession of a small amount of marijuana doesn’t merit a death sentence. There are many other variables to dismiss, but the hypotheticals may be instructive.

When reducing this incident to the simple facts — two individuals encountering one another on a dark night — changing the characteristics of the individuals can be a revealing exercise.

What if, for instance, Zimmerman were a 38-year-old black man carrying a semi-automatic weapon and Martin were a white middle-class teenager in a Patagonia windbreaker. Would not Martin’s efforts to fight back be portrayed as heroic? I speculate that if, in this hypothetical, a white Martin wrestled the gun from his black pursuer and shot him, he would not have even been indicted.

Or what if Zimmerman were an unarmed 38-year-old white man being followed by the black 17-year-old Martin, who carried the weapon? If Zimmerman turned on Martin, and began beating him up, would Martin be able to claim self-defense if he then shot Zimmerman to death? If you believe that, I have a bridge and a few derivatives to sell you.

It is thus at the intersection of race and age that this case rests. There is not a shred of evidence that Trayvon Martin had committed or intended to commit a crime. His behavior was no different than yours or mine might be if returning home after a trip to the convenience store. George Zimmerman followed and confronted Martin because he was, consciously or subconsciously, profiling the boy on the basis of his age and race. In a 911 call Zimmerman said Martin “looks black” and being in his “late teens.” The fact is that Martin is dead because he was a black teenager.

About 30 percent of the students in my New York City school are kids of color. Every black student I know has been followed in stores, stopped by the police or otherwise been the victim of profiling by race and age. Even one of my administrative colleagues, a black man in his late 30s with a consistently “professional” demeanor and appearance, is occasionally profiled and followed in stores. This bias is so deeply ingrained in our culture that even employees of color “profile” their black customers, particularly if they are teenagers.

If George Zimmerman is acquitted, the fact that our society believes that young black men are de facto suspicious — thus justifying Zimmerman’s vigilante interest in protecting the community from a (non-existent) threat — will likely have played a role. On the other hand, make the victim anyone other than a black teenager, and the odds of a guilty verdict would increase markedly.

Steve Nelson lives in Sharon and New York City, where he is the head of the Calhoun School, a private school.