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.