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Rush to judgment in Trayvon Martin case

By William J. Bennett, CNN Contributor
March 31, 2012 -- Updated 0029 GMT (0829 HKT)
We should be guided by the facts when seeking justice, says William Bennett.
We should be guided by the facts when seeking justice, says William Bennett.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • William Bennett: The death of Trayvon Martin is much more complex than first thought
  • Bennett: Some are not looking for justice, but are exploiting this terrible death
  • He says we don't know if Zimmerman is guilty or if racism was a motivating factor
  • Bennett: We should not rush to conclusions, and should be guided by the facts

Editor's note: William J. Bennett, a CNN contributor, is the author of "The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood." He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush.

(CNN) -- At first glance, the death of Trayvon Martin seemed to be a straightforward example of ugly, racial conflict resulting in the killing of an innocent black teenager by a white man, George Zimmerman. But now, as evidence continues to come forward, the facts seem much more complicated and the "obvious truth" premature.

At first, it was thought that Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain, was the aggressor because he followed Martin, got into a physical scuffle with him and shot him. But then, some witnesses claim that Martin attacked Zimmerman first, and the initial police report said that Zimmerman had blood on his nose and the back of his head after the incident. However, surveillance video footage that surfaced from the police station is leading to questions about the extent of Zimmerman's injuries.

To make matters more complex, we found out that in the past several months, Martin was suspended from school three times, once for the possession of drug paraphernalia.

The Miami Herald reported that in the gated community in which Zimmerman patrolled, there were eight burglaries, nine thefts and one shooting in the past year. Neighbors of Zimmerman described him as being passionate about security and credit him with thwarting and cracking some crimes. It was also revealed that Zimmerman identified himself as a Hispanic and was a registered Democrat.

William Bennett
William Bennett

The facts are confounding and inconclusive. But the tendency in the first days by some, including Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and an angry chorus of followers, was to rush to judgment with little regard for fairness, due process, or respect for the terrible death of a young man.

A mob mentality seems to be in the ascendancy.

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The New Black Panther Party offered a bounty for Zimmerman's capture.

Jackson said that Martin's death shows how "blacks are under attack" and "targeting, arresting, convicting blacks and ultimately killing us is big business." Apart from the obvious incendiary nature of such comments, what in heaven's name could Jackson mean?

Spike Lee fueled the flames by tweeting Zimmerman's home address, which turned out to be the wrong address and resulted in an older couple fleeing from their home and fearing for their lives after threats and crowds outside their residence. Lee, realizing his folly, has since apologized to the couple.

These actions and words illustrate a problem in dealing with Martin's death: Many people are not on an impartial hunt for justice but are exploiting this crisis for personal or political gain and claiming that it is representative of larger societal problems.

MSNBC political analyst and Democratic fundraiser Karen Finney blamed Martin's death on Republicans. She said, "[Republican politicians] reinforce and validate old stereotypes that associate the poor and welfare as criminal behavior with African-Americans and people of color, calling us lazy, undeserving recipients of public assistance. In the case of Trayvon, those festering stereotypes had lethal consequences."

Martin's own mother, Sybrina Fulton, filed applications for trademarks on two of the popular phrases used at rallies for Martin, "I Am Trayvon" and "Justice for Trayvon." Democrats politicized the event with a hearing on Capitol Hill in which Martin's parents testified. Later, U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Illinois, wore a hoodie on the House floor.

It's clear that some of the people raising the most noise are trying to make this less about the horrible death of a young man and more about claims of racial resentment that may or may not exist.

The loudest voices should be particularly careful not to rush to conclusions. Remember the Duke lacrosse case, in which members of the team were accused of a gang rape. The public rushed to judgment long before the young men were eventually acquitted.

Zimmerman may or may not be guilty; there may or may not be racial motivations. We do not know yet. In the absence of complete evidence, inflammatory comments and belligerent reactions will not aid the search for justice. An angry crowd should not be in charge.

Lastly, why is there so much selective outrage on the part of so many?

The leading cause of death for black male teenagers is homicide, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Of all the black homicide victims, about 93% are killed by other black people. In 2011, nearly 85% of all people murdered in Philadelphia were black. Where are the marches and protests for these victims? Is it justice people seek or are they looking and even hoping for signs of white racism so they can exploit it?

In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, "Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust."

While we wait and respect due process of law, we should do our part to uplift human personality. We can do so by giving both Martin and Zimmerman a just weighing of the evidence, both in the court of law and public opinion. Let us not assume the worst of anybody but be guided by the facts.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William J. Bennett.

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