Susan Estrich: Trayvon Martin - What Really Happened?
by Susan Estrich
Columnist
April 04, 2012 12:01 AM | 1905 views | 7 7 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
What happened to Trayvon Martin? The short answer: I don’t know.

I know that he was shot by George Zimmerman while wearing a hoodie and carrying a box of Skittles. No weapons of mass destruction. An awful tragedy. My thoughts and prayers go out to his parents and family. A thorough and fair investigation is obviously a necessity.

But after decades of studying the criminal justice system, how it works and how it doesn’t, including the shadow cast by racism over that system, that is what I know.

I also know this: If the police and prosecutors had a clear case that Zimmerman had unreasonably resorted to deadly force in a situation where the law prohibits it, if they had probable cause to arrest him and believe they could and should secure a conviction, they would have arrested him.

With the eyes of the nation upon them, with the president comparing Martin to the son he doesn’t have, with marchers and editorials, the easiest thing, the most political thing, the move that would turn down the temperature would be to arrest Zimmerman.

I know that is not always what has happened. Too often in our history, police and prosecutors have been reluctant to arrest African-American men for killing white men in situations where they would have done so had the races been different.

I know that police and prosecutors and juries have been too willing to assume that any African-American man in a hoodie is likely to be a criminal and that crimes involving the death of an African-American have not received the same attention as those involving the death of a white person.

I also know that in highly politicized cases, just the opposite has happened.

The most notorious example of this, obviously, was the Duke lacrosse team case, where the prosecutor moved too fast, where his motives were political, where a thorough investigation would have spared not only the young men involved but also, ironically, the young woman, whose reputation was also ruined in the process.

And Martin’s also almost certainly would be were an unjustified arrest made here.

We are a nation of laws, not men and women. From everything I can see, police and prosecutors in Sanford, Fla., are proceeding carefully and thoroughly — as they must, given the issues involved.

The law allows an individual to resort to deadly force when he reasonably believes he is facing death or serious bodily injury. In many states, an individual is required to retreat (at least when attacked outside his own home) when he could do so safely. Florida is not one of those states. I do not support “Stand Your Ground“ laws because they allow lives to be taken in self-defense where it is not in fact a necessity. But I don’t make the law in Florida, and neither do those charged with its enforcement.

The law does not require that the individual who resorts to deadly force be right. His actions must be judged at the time he takes them. The standard is objective: what a reasonable person would do. But in applying that standard, the reasonable person stands in the shoes of the one who resorted to deadly force.

Obviously, race should not be a factor in this analysis.

Obviously, wearing a hoodie should not be a factor in this analysis.

But if there is credible and substantiated evidence that Zimmerman reasonably believed he was facing death or serious bodily injury at the time he shot, then the police and prosecutors would be violating their ethical duties and the rule of law in arresting him to respond to a political crisis.

I understand the president’s identification with Trayvon Martin. I understand his concerns that deaths such as this have, historically, been too easily ignored on racial grounds. But it is essential that our leaders have the courage to say that, ultimately, the issue here should not be race. The issue is the rule of law, applied without regard to race.

Susan Estrich is a law professor in Southern California and managed the 1988 presidential race of Democrat Michael Dukakis.
Comments
(7)
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MPCato
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April 04, 2012
OK, who are you, and what have you done with Susan Estrich?
what if
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April 04, 2012
"If there is credible and substatiated evidence that Zimmerman reasonably believed he was facing death or serious bodily injury". How about if, on your way home, you were being followed by an armed 28 year old who did not identify himself, outweighed you, was not a uniformed police officer. Would you reasonably believe you were facing death or serious bodily injury?
WestCobber
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April 04, 2012
Maybe you should be more up to date on the stats for Martin. He was over 6 foot tall and over 200 pounds. He is not the angelic little child shown by news media photos when he was 10 or 12 years old. and gosh,Obama couldn't wait to unvail his newest campaign shirt - the gray hoodie with "Obama 2012" on it. Talk about in your face. Also maybe you should hear all of the 9-1-1 tape, not the edited version played on lame stream media whose whole purpose was to incite. I think they should be charged criminally. Some of you are so quick to take what the left media and left in general say that you should be ashamed of yourself for not researching this yourself. So quit sounding like you know all of the facts - you obviously do not - and neither do I, but at least I can remain objective until all of the facts are in. But long and short this was not a case of a poor little child being pursued - this was a 17 year old grown man who was probably as big or bigger than Zimmerman.
Scott O Miller
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April 04, 2012
Susan...you are spot on in your analysis (not that you need kudos from me). I used to be a cop and chastised family members in both the Duke case..and this for leaping to conclusions before the "FACTS" are in. My only criticism of this is that it has taken the police & DA (30 days) too long to thorughly investigate what to me should have been a fairly simple investigation: presentation to a sitting grand jury: and a decision handed down. Problem is justice delayed.. is justice denied and I understand how the Martin family would be angry that "nothing" happened until the media spot light was shone on this. On the other hand, Sharpton/Jackson et/al are despicable for race bating this. They do not want a fight. People out here in fly over country are sick of everything being racial and those who proclaim "No justice.. No peace" as their battle cry are BADLY outnumbered!
anonymous
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April 04, 2012
Sorry Scott O Miller if Sharpton/Jackson et/al had not brought this miscarriage of justice to public attention, it would have been swept under the rug and never have seen the light of day.
mahnaz
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April 04, 2012
obama is a community organizer whose every instinct and fiber of being, and even yearning and need, is about tearing into the fiber of this country, pulling it limb from limb, race from race, gender from gender, class from class, and American from American! It's not about race per se, or law or even the Constitution. It is about obama and his barley concealed, seething, boiling, bubbling, red hot, discontentedness and raging bitterness. Thus a quintessential American religious freedom right is morphed into a Fluke/contraception manufactured kerfuffle deserving of a busy President's personal call, and a local tragedy/law enforcement issue is morphed into "his" perceived son and national race-baiting wedge issue. It always and forever about obama, the community organizer and his personal aching seething yearnings, and never about America, the great, the exceptional, the hope, the desire the world over, and the shining city on the hill!
anonymous
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April 04, 2012
Thanks for defining "Obama Derangement Syndrome"!
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