The Zimmerman Trial, Racial Profiling, and Social Justice

The big news of this past weekend is the acquittal of George Zimmerman of the charge of second degree murder in the shooting of Trayvon Martin.  Much of the discussion of this case has centered on the question of racial profiling. This is striking, as well as troubling, because it represents a failure to think dispassionately and justly about the legal question actually posed by the prosecution of Zimmerman.  Racial profiling is just not very relevant to that question.

I don’t mean to say that racial profiling is not a relevant social issue, or that it is irrelevant to situations like the one that resulted in Trayvon Martin’s sad death.  The point I am making is that it has dominated discussion of the trial, which was concerned with the legal charges against Zimmerman, while not being particularly relevant to those things.


In the first place, it is not so clear that Zimmerman subjected Trayvon Martin to racial profiling.  This has been asserted often by those who wished to see him convicted, but the facts as they have come to light are not altogether decisive.  We have heard the 911 tape, and on it Zimmerman says nothing about Trayvon Martin’s race until prompted by the dispatcher.  He was suspicious because Martin was an unfamiliar person in a neighborhood that had had some break-ins, and he may well have been overly suspicious.  Certainly his suspicions turned out to be unfounded.  But the tape does not make it sound as if race was a preoccupation in his mind.  He does not mention it until he is asked about it.

But my main point is that the question of racial profiling has no necessary connection to the charge of second degree murder, which is the charge that was applied to Zimmerman.  We can see this if we think through different extreme possibilities.  Suppose Zimmerman had no idea of Martin’s race and was not thinking about it at all.  Suppose he followed him merely because of his vague suspicions of a stranger in his neighborhood.  Suppose then an angry exchange of words ensued in which an enraged Zimmerman took out his gun and shot Martin.  Here there would be zero racial profiling, and Zimmerman would still certainly be guilty of second degree murder.  His guilt would arise from his intending to shoot and kill another human being, irrespective of all questions of race.

Then we can consider the opposite situation.  Suppose Zimmerman was completely guilty of racial profiling.  He saw a black teenager in his neighborhood and made the rash assumption that he was up to no good.  So he followed him, and Martin jumped him, got on top of him, and started beating his head into the pavement (which is what Zimmerman said Martin did).  Here we would have a clear case of racial profiling, but Zimmerman would not be guilty of second degree murder, because he would have been acting to defend himself.

My point is this: race may or may not have had much to do with what motivated Zimmerman to follow Trayvon Martin.  But whatever role it played there, it can’t be determinative of the question whether Zimmerman deserved to be convicted of second degree murder.  That depends on other facts of the case, things that developed after his decision to follow Martin.  Zimmerman may have made misjudgments that contributed to the tragic outcome, but whether he committed second degree murder is a different question.

Nevertheless, many people have talked as if he deserved to be convicted because he committed racial profiling.  This kind of thinking is not helpful for any of us in the long run.  A just and free society depends on its ability to convict or acquit a person for the specific offense with which he is charged.  If we demand that people be convicted of charges of which they may not really be guilty because we are unhappy with other parts of their conduct, we are throwing the rule of law out the window and any possibility of justice and freedom with it.



Categories:Culture Politics

  • Eric B

    I am a Catholic and I find it hard to figure out why so many Catholics are willing to believe that Zimmerman was justified to kill Martin. I keep reading and hearing, “self defense” used as justification for Zimmerman’s shooting Martin.

    I have a very different point of view. Who started this incident? Martin doing nothing wrong walking to his father’s home? Or Zimmerman who sees a teenager walking across the complex and who goes out of his way to follow him. There is no probable cause for Zimmerman’s actions.

    Zimmerman instigated the whole situation.

    Who acted in “self defense?”

    If a person is being followed by another person for no good reason, in a neighborhood that is new to that person, that person can feel threatened. The follower, Zimmerman, was the one who was threatening. Martin was the one who was threatened.

    If Martin became scared and felt threatened, he had every right to defend himself against an aggressor.

    The story of Zimmerman having his head repeatedly pounded into the pavement is doubtful. He had about a one inch scratch on his head. One bandaid would take care of that. Where was the evidence of head tram a cracked cranium or a concussion? There wasn’t any just a scratch.

    Then we have the story that Martin was on top of Zimmerman punching him and possibly breaking his nose. This may be so, but this is called a fist fight. You don’t shoot someone for a fist fight you started!

    Wimpy losers shouldn’t be allowed to carry guns. Zimmerman gives off very indication of being a coward. He’s a big shot who follows teens around a complex with a gun and uses it the first chance he gets when his actions turn into a fist fight.

    There is no doubt that Zimmerman is completely responsible for Martin’s death. He incited the whole incident. Martin had a right to defend himself when he felt he was in danger and as it turned out his feelings were correct.

  • michael laskowski

    He was told to stand down. He replied”they always get away with it” and he was carrying a gun.
    Not illegal but it was used to kill someone.

  • Cesar

    Well, I wasn’t a juror presented with all the evidence of the situation, and so I certainly don’t feel qualified to make a comment about this controversial case. However, as a practicing Catholic, and as a scholar who is always critical of information sources, I think this Catholic blog has missed the opportunity to remind its followers about universal Christian values. Rather than its hackneyed lesson on law and order, which shows no sensitivity for the death of a mother and father’s 17-year-old son, why not condemn the mortal sin of killing that has taken place? Why not remind its followers what Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I tell you that you should not offer resistance to injury; if a man strikes you on thy right cheek, turn the other cheek also towards him…” (Matthew 5:38-39). Consider also, Matthew 26:52, in which Jesus chastises one of his disciples for cutting the ear off one of his arrestors: “Put your sword back into its place; all those who take up the sword will perish by the sword.” A reminder such as this, I think, might have been the more appropriate response to the Zimmerman case from a website that claims to be ardently pro-life.

    • law

      The bible doesn’t say all killing is a mortal sin. Besides Jesus told his followers to sell their coats and buy swords if they didn’t have them. So he obviously would not have had a problem with self-defense.

      • Kevin

        In the same chapter (Luke 22), Jesus also rebukes the disciple who draws the sword, staying his hand, saying “Stop! No more of this!” Then restores the ear of the wounded servant. Somehow the folks who love to snag that line about selling coats and buying swords never get around to that part. Maybe Jesus had already thought better about using violence, even in self defense. He certainly had a lot to say about that elsewhere.

    • Deacon Desmond Drummer




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