In Zimmerman trial, it’s a jury of millions

Story highlights

There are about 13,000 U.S. murders annually; why does this case fascinate us?

CNN legal analyst Sunny Hostin: Case is at intersection of guns, race, self-defense, kids

Trial is "the equivalent of O.J. Simpson for the next generation," a radio host says

Many people have an emotional investment in the outcome of the trial

CNN  — 

When the jury emerges from deliberations days or weeks from now to render its verdict in that Florida courtroom, when the family of Trayvon Martin leans forward in breathless anticipation and when George Zimmerman stands to hear his fate, you can bet your Disney vacation the whole affair will end badly.

Not because Zimmerman, on trial in the shooting death of Martin, will be found guilty or not guilty, but because millions of Americans have already made up their minds about what should happen. Large swaths of people are going to be disappointed no matter how the verdict falls. Probably more like outraged.

This is odd, because FBI statistics show there are about 13,000 murders annually; people shot, stabbed, beaten, run down with cars and thrown off of balconies; 13,000 times that we could get interested, get involved and pass public judgment.

So what is it about this lone killing that has inflamed passions to such a degree?

At Georgetown University in the offices of history and African-American studies, associate professor Maurice Jackson has an answer. At 60, he is old enough to have lived through the glory days of the civil rights movement and young enough to still fear for his own son’s life in a dangerous world. Does DNA evidence contradict Zimmerman?

“I think this is very important to black people because it brings to mind their worst fears that this could happen to their sons. You have a kid with everything going for him, doing no harm, and going about his business, and all of a sudden he is marked.”

From his syndicated radio show in Dallas, conservative host Ben Ferguson has a different take.

“This has had everything to do with manipulation and race war from day one,” he says, citing what he has heard from listeners. “This is a life-changing, life-altering court case, and I’m not so sure people really care about if justice is served truly. It’s more: Did my side win or not?”

And at the trial itself, CNN legal analyst Sunny Hostin believes the fascination lies in all that and much more.

“People care about gun rights. People care about race. People care about children. People care about the right to defend yourself. And this case has all of them wrapped up together, and that’s rare.”

Case didn’t start out as big news

Although it is hard to remember now, there was a time when this case was far from a national obsession. At first, the shooting on that rainy Sunday night in late February 2012 was barely a blip in the media.

A few Florida news outlets picked it up, but as the days passed and interest faded, it seemed destined to fall into that neverland of sad, forgotten stories with headlines like, “Young black man shot; police investigating.”

Trayvon Martin shooting: Fast Facts

But the victim’s parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, were convinced that the police were not investigating nearly enough. “I think this is very much about two parents who felt that their child was murdered,” Hostin says.

They pushed for greater exposure for their complaints and were connected with Tallahassee lawyer Ben Crump. Crump enlisted others, spread the word, and a week and a half later, their efforts paid off.

Reuters published what the MIT Center for Civic Media found to be the first major national news item, and it heavily quoted Crump. In just under 500 words, he laid out what is now the prosecution’s script:

Trayvon Martin was a high school junior who hoped to become a pilot. He went to the store for Skittles and an Arizona Iced Tea. Zimmerman (who has Latino roots and is incorrectly identified as white in the story) deemed him “suspicious,” stalked him and shot him in the chest.

“He was a good kid,” Crump told Reuters “On his way home, a Neighborhood Watch loose cannon shot and killed him.”

And in the final sentence, Crump slammed down the race card. “Why is this kid suspicious in the first place? I think a stereotype must have been placed on the kid.”

The next day, “CBS This Morning” picked up the story, and soon it was blazing into the homes, computers and smartphones of close to 3 million Americans and climbing according to that MIT study.

A petition on started filling with what would add up to more than 2 million signatures.

In Florida, the Sanford Police Department’s checkered past with race relations came under scrutiny. Celebrities railed about injustice. Young people marched in hoodies, carrying bags of candy. The New Black Panthers, an activist group for African American rights, offered a reward for Zimmerman’s capture. Even President Barack Obama weighed in, saying “You know, if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”

Tapes of 911 calls were released, fueling the media frenzy, especially when NBC edited Zimmerman’s comments in a way that many saw as unfair, imparting a racial tone to his comments that is missing in the original recordings. The network later apologized.

And of course, there were the photos.

As the story heated, news agencies everywhere favored pictures of the victim from several years earlier, showing him not as a 6-foot-something 17-year-old but as a fresh-faced kid, a child really.

On a People magazine cover, an image of Martin looking like a seventh- or eighth-grader, incapable of any menace, appeared next to the words “An American Tragedy.” And the die was cast: The killing evolved into an unstoppable narrative that spurred a national outcry for justice, and 45 days after the deadly encounter, Zimmerman was charged with murder.

That is as it should be, says George Ciccariello-Maher, a researcher at Drexel University in Philadelphia, who has written extensively about race.

He defends Martin’s reaction to Zimmerman with a simple precept: The teenager intuitively knew he was being hunted because black citizens have suffered injustice time and again at the hands of police, security guards and neighborhood watches.

“It is kind of implausible to say that Zimmerman was not operating on the basis of racial assumptions and on the basis of racial targeting of Trayvon Martin. What else explains it? This is something that has repeated itself historically. The conditions of this case are not new.”

Mom vs. mom in Zimmerman trial

History hard at work in this case

At the Center for the Study of Southern Culture in Mississippi, director Ted Ownby agrees that history is hard at work spurring interest in the case, especially for Southerners.

“Travyon Martin is a reminder of Emmett Till and the possibility that a black teenager isn’t safe just doing ordinary teenager things.” Till, a 14-year-old black youth, was killed in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman.

Still, even if all of that helped turn this into a national cause for those who believe in regimental racism, what is the reason so many others are also watching closely?

“It is the same reason why everyone became obsessed with Paula Deen,” says Ferguson, the radio host.

In a nutshell, just as some people feel the cooking queen was too zealously pilloried for using a racial slur, they fear all the worry about race, stereotypes and cosmic justice could interfere with the down-to-earth legal question: Did George Zimmerman, in fact, do anything wrong? And just as importantly, will those who are already convinced of his guilt or innocence accept a verdict that says otherwise?

“People want to see what the reaction is going to be from society,” Ferguson says, “and it’s not even so much about facts of innocence or guilt. It’s truly watching a live soap opera that is the equivalent of O.J. Simpson for the next generation.”

Many raise the Simpson case in discussing Zimmerman because it also produced a sharp divide among court watchers.

When the former football star was acquitted in the slayings of his ex-wife and her friend, polls found that most blacks agreed with the verdict and most whites did not. Central to that case, too, was the idea that police and prosecutors do not treat black men fairly.

So back at Drexel, Ciccariello-Maher pushes against calls for a Dragnet-style “just the facts, ma’am” approach in the Zimmerman case. Race would be important, he suggests, even if words that are racially provocative such as “cracker” and “profiling” did not appear in the testimony, because it shapes how all of us see life itself.

“Unless we are willing to grapple with that importance, then I think we’re kind of refusing to begin to understand what is going on here.”

‘I don’t want to predict it’

Make no mistake: There are those who feel a conviction of Zimmerman would be proof of political correctness run amok and who firmly believe Martin escalated the confrontation to the point of his own death. Case closed. And they believe that just as firmly as Jackson believes the counter: Zimmerman was armed Martin was not Martin died. The jury has to see that a crime was committed.

“I don’t want to predict it,” Jackson says, “but I couldn’t imagine him being convicted of anything less than manslaughter. He deliberately went out to take the law into his own hands. It was vigilante justice.”

Opinion: Can Zimmerman win over jurors?

From her seat as a former prosecutor, Hostin tries to thread the needle. She’d like to see the jury fairly consider everything, including any racial overtones. “Jurors don’t leave their life experiences at the door, and we don’t want them to.”

Much has emerged since the earliest days of this case to challenge assumptions, although some of it has already been barred from admission at the trial. Less-than-flattering pictures of Martin flashing obscene gestures have appeared, along with accounts of repeated school suspensions, suspected marijuana use and text messages about fighting and guns.

The teen was never charged with any crimes, and his mother has angrily dismissed such accusations. “They killed my son, and now they’re trying to kill his reputation,” Fulton says.

Trayvon Martin’s mother, brother take the stand

On Zimmerman’s front, the Internet has buzzed with reports of past brushes with the law, and prosecutors are even now painting the image of a man who passed himself off as merely a concerned citizen when he was actually a would-be cop who cunningly pretended to be ignorant of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which allows a person to essentially hold their position, violently if necessary, rather than yield to any intimidation. The defendant’s bail was revoked early on when the judge determined that he had misled the court about his finances.

In other words, this is real life with real and terrible consequences.

Neither the victim nor the defendant is precisely what mythmakers in each camp would have you believe. Indeed, like most cases where race, violence and our biases collide, this one involves imperfect souls in imperfect circumstances, and it will render an imperfect justice in the eyes of many.

All of that undeniably adds to our multilayered fascination with this trial, but how we react to the verdict when it finally comes may tell us more about our expectations than the evidence.