In the narrowest sense, the news people had been waiting for out of the George Zimmerman trial in Sanford, Fla., came late Saturday night when the jury delivered its verdict: not guilty on all charges, including manslaughter and second-degree murder, in the death of Trayvon Martin.
But the real reason everyone tuned into the trial, with its scrappy details of a small-time confrontation gone awry, was for the verdict it might deliver about race in America. And for that larger mission, the six-woman jury was ill-suited.
By assignment, the jurors had to handle only the question of whether Zimmerman, who was taking a training course in criminal justice and had volunteered to patrol his neighborhood at the time of his violent confrontation with Martin on Feb. 26, 2012, had acted either with malice or at least without legal justification in shooting and killing the 17-year-old boy.
And that was enough. The jurors had to weigh whether Zimmerman’s pursuit of Martin, in contravention of police instructions, suggested malicious intent. They had to disentangle counter-claims about whose voice could be heard crying for help in the background of recorded 911 calls made by distraught neighbors. They had to separate conflicting claims over how the confrontation had unfolded and where Martin had been when he was shot.
Most of all, they had to decide whether the prosecution had proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman had broken the law in killing Martin.
But with angry crowds gathering outside the courthouse, the trial had become freighted with questions that no pragmatic jury could answer. Are gated communities in parts of the country inclined to racial profiling? Do permissive gun laws open the door to racial violence against young black men? Are law enforcement officials in America still inclined to blame black victims of violent crime?
For those questions, the trial was decidedly ill-equipped, as the jurors only had a narrow remit. But the public expectation that the trial would serve as an answer not just for the narrow legal questions but the larger social ones, led many to worry about unrest. In hopes of managing anticipated anger, for example, Miami-Dade police set up two “first amendment” zones where protesters could gather under the auspices of local clergy and community leaders.
In the early days after the killing, when law enforcement had declined to put the question of Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence to a jury, President Obama himself had weighed in, apparently in solidarity with Martin’s family. At a press conference in March 2012, Obama said, “My main message is to the parents of Trayvon Martin: If I had a son he’d look like Trayvon. They are right to expect that all of us as Americans will take this with the seriousness it deserves.”
Now that the six-woman jury has answered the narrow question of whether there was reasonable doubt of George Zimmerman’s guilt, Americans will have to look elsewhere for answers to the larger questions of social and racial justice the case raised.
With reporting by Nate Rawlings and Claire Groden