We have always been deeply troubled by the shooting death of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman. As expatriates, we are not bombarded daily by the US press 24/7, so nearly all of our knowledge of the Zimmerman case comes from blog posts, articles, and news reports sympathetic to Zimmerman. Yet, even when we read accounts written in defense of George Zimmerman, we come away feeling–not that he is being wronged–but that he is guilty of manslaughter.
Even watching excerpts from the trial, and seeing the prosecution witnesses “implode” on the stand, we still cannot help but think that Zimmerman is guilty.
The basic facts are these: A young man was walking, in the neighborhood in which he was staying, to a convenience store at night. A self-appointed neighborhood watchman got out of his truck and pursued him. He had a gun. While we do not know everything that happened next, the young man did as was proper and legal under Florida law. He also did as I would have done and would have expected my sons to have done: He stood his ground. A strange man following you in the dark is by nature threatening. The young man had a right to feel menaced and as though his life might be in danger, and he had a right to do whatever he felt necessary to protect himself. If he had had a gun and shot Zimmerman, it may well have been within his legal rights.
As it was, he was shot and killed.
If Zimmerman had never gotten out of his truck and pursued Martin, none of this would have happened and Martin would probably be alive today.
There is no constitutional right for a man to pursue a stranger through a neighborhood and confront him without any probable cause of wrong-doing. Walking through a neighborhood wearing a hood is not probable cause.
There is, on the other hand, a constitutional right to go to the store at night without being stalked or killed.
In our view, the police dropped the ball on the Zimmerman case from the very get-go. Race-baiters such as Al Sharpton and Barack Obama then used this for their own personal agendas.
Sadly, many conservatives have taken the race-bait that these demagogues have offered, and are defending something–and someone–who should not be defended. As a result, in many ways they sound exactly like the racist caricatures that the Sharptons of the world have tried to portray them as.
It is time to stop taking the bait.
We have no idea what the Florida jury will do, as it is Florida and the judicial system is highly defective there. However, there are good reasons to think that Zimmerman might be convicted, despite the problems the prosecution is having. The facts and the law simply are not on his side.
Even if Zimmerman is declared innocent, there are good reasons why conservatives should not be rushing to his defense, and should not view an innocent verdict with glee. David French, a lawyer and conservative columnist, in an article for Commentary, illuminates some of these reasons:
Three key principles dictate caution.
First, most conservatives rightly believe that public spaces belong to law-abiding citizens and not to menacing aggressors. In fact, this is one of the core principles behind the much-maligned “stand your ground” law that supposedly kept Zimmerman from being charged in the first place. But if the public spaces belong to the law-abiding and not to aggressors, don’t Zimmerman’s actions raise as many (if not more) questions than Martin’s?
After all, not even the most zealous Zimmerman defender has credibly accused Martin of initially doing anything other than walking home from the store—an entirely lawful act. If a teenager is followed after sunset by an unknown man, there are two predictable reactions: (1) The teen would likely be frightened, and (2) most reasonable observers would see that fright as reasonable and the unknown man as a potential threat.
Contra John Lott, citizens do not have a blanket right to “investigate a strange person in [their] neighborhood.” No such broad right exists in the Constitution, relevant statutes, or common law. Zimmerman’s alleged right to investigate is certainly limited by Martin’s right to walk in public spaces free from threats or threatening behavior. Were Zimmerman’s actions reasonable or unreasonable? Could Zimmerman have been reasonably viewed as a threat to Martin, and did Martin thus have the right to “stand his ground” rather than Zimmerman? Those questions will be critical at trial, and it will not be settled by the assertion of any “right” to investigate Martin.
Second, conservatives should not be inclined to trust without question the actions of local law enforcement. There is no evidence that a single national conservative commentator knew the first thing about the competence or character of the individuals who made the initial decision not to charge Zimmerman. They don’t know whether those local officials are wise, foolish, or free from racist taint. But they do know, or should know, that public officials (even public-safety officers) make mistakes even when they have the best of intentions, and they should also understand the need not only for constitutional constraints on police actions but also for public accountability.
Let us be clear about the law-enforcement action Martin’s parents were protesting at the outset: It was an unreviewable decision by a prosecutor not to charge (not even for manslaughter) an armed man who killed their unarmed son. And that decision appears to have been based not on conclusive evidence of Zimmerman’s innocence but on a subjective assessment that Zimmerman’s self-defense claim would be difficult to overcome. Do conservatives trust prosecutors to make that call? Or is that more properly a function of a grand jury?
Third, conservatives should be the last people in America to support or defend reckless behavior with a lawfully carried firearm. Whatever the verdict, an unarmed teenager is dead because an armed citizen behaved at best foolishly. He wrongly profiled a kid as a threat (it’s not known whether the profiling had a racial component), followed him on foot (at least for a time), and shot him after apparently losing a fistfight. Second Amendment activists—including, most notably, the National Rifle Association—put their commitment to safety, sobriety, and responsibility in gun ownership at the center of their advocacy. Liberalizing gun laws is not supposed to mean liberalizing behavior. In fact, one of the best arguments for concealed-carry laws is that concealed-carry permit holders have excellent conduct (for example, in Texas, concealed-carry permit holders are substantially less likely to commit a crime, in any category). The thriving sport-shooting community is similarly committed to safety. In contrast with the safety commitments of the NRA, the vast majority of concealed-carry permit holders, and the sport-shooting community, Zimmerman’s behavior crossed a line.
Again, we do not know what the verdict will be. However, in any case, the appropriate conservative response should be to mourn the death of a young man, rather than celebrate a killer.