Thursday, July 18, 2013

What if Trayvon Martin had killed George Zimmerman?

     One of my favorite types of science fiction is that of alternate realities or alternate histories, or "what if" stories. What if Nazi Germany won World War II? What if Dewey did beat Truman? What if Europeans never colonized the Americas? What if Babbage's proto computers had been built and worked?
     Or what if Trayvon Martin had grabbed George Zimmerman's gun and shot him instead?
     A lot has been written on the subject of Zimmerman and Martin, there's been a lot of outrage over the "Not Guilty" verdict on the one hand and a lot of handwringing and counter accusations by those who feel that charges should never have been brought in the first place on the other. (The most intelligent post-mortem -- and probably the best researched -- is William Saletan's on
     I've reluctantly concluded that the jury vote was based on the evidence, and that Zimmerman was not proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of murder or manslaughter. I don't like it, but it's probably true.
     What's equally true is that if Martin had indeed taken the gun from Zimmerman, and shot and killed him with it, he should have been found equally "Not Guilty" under the law.
     The defense argued that Zimmerman was in fear for his life or grave bodily injury when he shot Martin. Despite the fact that the confrontation that led to this fear was created by Zimmerman, this is true. It's equally true that Martin, who was being pursued in a dark gated community by someone who did not identify himself as a Neighborhood Watch volunteer and who turned out to have a gun, also had legitimate reason to fear for his life or grave bodily harm.
     On an episode of the quirky 1990s TV drama  Picket Fences, the police chief (Tom Skerritt) ended up on jury duty in a case in which a drug dealer shot and killed some police officers who were coming to arrest him. His defense was that he was cleaning and loading his guns when they busted down his door. He knew that when they saw he was holding a loaded gun, they would shoot him immediately because they feared for their lives. He shot them first in self defense, not to prevent his arrest but because otherwise they would have killed him. The police chief didn't like the argument -- the drug dealer was a criminal, the police had a warrant, the guns may have been illegally obtained -- but he couldn't argue with the dealer's conclusion: If he hadn't fired first, he would be dead.
     If Martin had killed Zimmerman, would the case have attracted as much attention or the same kind of attention? Would the people who now believe Zimmerman was completely innocent grant Martin the same clemency? Would those who condemn Zimmerman call for Martin to go to jail for murder? If so or if not, what does that say about our society? A commentator on NPR's The Diane Rehm Show said that it means that -- in Florida, at least -- the winner is the one wsho draws and shoots first.
     While Richard Cohen argues that Zimmerman was right to be suspicious of Martin because he was African American, and Geraldo Rivera argues it's the fault of the hoodie that Martin was wearing, the fact remains that an unarmed young man -- carrying a cellphone, a non-alcoholic beverage and some candy -- was killed because someone with a gun pursued him in the dark without identifying himself.
     Granted, Martin reacted violently. What is the proper response when someone follows you in the dark without identifying himself or showing that he has reason or authority to do so -- with or without a gun? Zimmerman never took the stand, so we never got to hear him explain what result he expected from his pursuit. Maybe he was so wrapped up in his assumption that Martin was up to no good that he didn't expect any result other than that the police would arrest him.
     If the guilty party is the last one who could have done something differently to avoid the tragedy, then both men were partly to blame. Still, I have more sympathy for the man who was minding his own business when a stranger with a gun stalked him, whatever his motivation.


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