Race-charged trial challenges views on racism, local expert says

Not since the trial of O.J. Simpson has a criminal case tinged with race riveted the country the way the George Zimmerman trial in Florida has.

Vernellia Randall, a local law expert in race relations, said the case fascinates people because it challenges views of what constitutes racism, particularly among people who strongly want to believe we have a color-blind society.

Many have said race was involved in the delay in charging Zimmerman after he shot and killed an unarmed Trayvon Martin, claiming self-defense. Others wonder why more attention has been not focused on Zimmerman’s right to defend himself when allegedly threatened by Martin.

The verdict could come any day as the prosecution gave its closing arguments Thursday in an Orlando suburb courtroom.

“Trayvon Martin was threatening because of his color,” Randall said. “Because he was a young black man walking in a place where he was perceived not to belong.”

She said the same thing could happen to a white man in a predominately black neighborhood, as “we get suspicious. Is that racism? I think it is.”

But the outcome would have been different, she said, if a black man had followed a white man because he found him suspicious, and the white man was shot to death. In that case, she said, it would be “impossible to imagine” that the black man wouldn’t be arrested immediately.

Zimmerman has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder. On the night of the fatal scuffle in February 2012, Martin was visiting his father and his father’s fiancee at the same townhome complex where Zimmerman lived.

Zimmerman observed Martin while driving in his neighborhood, called police and the fight ensued after the neighborhood watch volunteer got out of his vehicle. Zimmerman claims Martin was slamming his head into the concrete pavement when he fired his gun.

Even though prosecutors said Zimmerman thought he “assumed Trayvon Martin was a criminal,” Randall said that explanation leaves out why — because Martin was black — and that factor is what is driving public interest in the story.

The question of racial motivations is separate from the question of whether Zimmerman is guilty of murder, or as added Thursday, of manslaughter, Randall said.

“That is what we’re not discussing, and we’re using this trial as a proxy for it,” Randall said. “And I think that’s a mistake.”

On Thursday, Judge Debra Nelson ruled that jurors can consider the lesser charge of manslaughter, as requested by prosecutors, and that will be included in the jury instructions. Prosecutors started closing arguments, the defense goes today and the jury could have the high-profile case before the weekend starts.

Tom Hagel, an UD law professor, said the instruction allows for a “compromise verdict,” allowing the jury to go with another option if jurors find that prosecutors didn’t make the case for murder, but don’t want to let Zimmerman go completely free. He said jurors probably felt “incredible pressure,” given the national attention the case has garnered.

Because the prosecutors asked for that change, Hagel said, “my feeling is they’re a little concerned about losing this case.”

Zimmerman profiled the 17-year-old, assuming he was up to no good, and that led to the Miami teen’s death, a prosecutor said Thursday in closing arguments of the neighborhood watch volunteer’s second-degree murder trial.

“A teenager is dead. He is dead through no fault of his own,” prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda told jurors. “He is dead because a man made assumptions … Unfortunately because his assumptions were wrong, Trayvon Benjamin Martin no longer walks this earth.”

De la Rionda dismissed defense claims that Zimmerman acted in self-defense, accusing the neighborhood watch volunteer of lying about what happened.

Zimmerman showed ill will and hatred when he whispered profanities to a police dispatcher over his cell phone while following Martin, de la Rionda said. In order to get a second-degree conviction, prosecutors must show Zimmerman showed ill will, hatred or spite.

“The law doesn’t allow people to take the law into their own hands,” de la Rionda said.

The prosecutor also showed jurors a headshot photo of Martin taken from his autopsy. Jurors trained their eyes on de la Rionda, barely taking notes.

The judge denied a request for the jury also to consider third-degree murder after a defense attorney called the proposal “outrageous.”

Prosecutor Richard Mantei argued that instructions for third-degree murder should be included on the premise that Zimmerman committed child abuse when he fatally shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin because Martin was underage.

But defense attorney Don West called the proposed instruction “a trick,” and he accused the prosecutor of springing it on the defense at the last minute.

The Associated Press contributed to this story

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